“The internet is being Balkanized: that we are returning to walled gardens.”-Lemley, Mark A., The Splinternet
Splinternet refers to the phenomenon of the internet gradually differentiating into independent network ecosystems controlled and managed by different countries, regions, or organizations. As one of the media carriers that people are most exposed to in their daily lives, social media platforms are also one of the most easily influenced parts of internet life today.
Social media platforms are not only carriers of information dissemination, but also important forces in shaping social dynamics and public discourse. Gillespie (2015) believes that platforms ‘play a key role in social media research’, and their changes can lead to the development of public discourse and social dynamics. It is constantly adjusting with the trend of the internet splitting again, gradually changing the impact it can bring to people. This understanding allows us to connect the design, technology, economic, and political characteristics of the platform with the evolution of social media, forming a complex and fragile ecosystem. Therefore, I hope to explain how the Splinternet phenomenon has entered our lives and led to changes in the information ecosystem by observing its impact on social media platforms.
Adaptation of the platform
The essence of Splinternet is the gradual differentiation of the Internet into independent network ecosystems controlled and managed by different countries, regions, or organizations. This differentiation requires social media platforms to adjust according to regulations and norms in different regions to ensure their operations are legal and compliant in various regions.
Social media companies must face differences in regulations across different regions, which increases the complexity of content filtering and censorship. They need to maintain freedom of speech while ensuring that the content on their platform does not violate local regulations, which means that powerful content review tools are essential. This process not only requires a significant amount of human and technical resources, but also brings ethical and compliance challenges, as balancing freedom of speech and compliance is not always an easy task. Su cited Tiktok as an example in his report earlier this year. The company chose to store its overseas generated data in a relatively neutral Singapore, “hoping to cope with the growing geopolitical tension”. Tiktok also “gradually transferred the responsibility of the third party agreement” (Su, 2023), which is considered immoral by users, but the social media platform represented by Tiktok has to give up “neutrality” to meet the platform requirements. This unethical behavior is not entirely a passive adaptation to gradually tightening regulations, and large social media platforms are also achieving “commercialization of social relationships” by collecting, processing, and disseminating user data (de Kloet et al., 2019).
Are we also splintering?
The Splinternet phenomenon has brought about significant changes in user experience. Individuals from different regions may experience vastly different user experiences when using social media platforms, including but not limited to interface language, recommended content, advertising, and social interaction methods. Hofhuis et al. conducted a study on international students in 2022. They found that “the social media platforms used by international students are related to their ability to adapt to local social relationships”, reflecting the emergence of Splinternet, which has forced people to spend more effort to adapt to changes in social media platforms.
In addition, the Splinternet phenomenon has also led to different social media platforms having unique user cultures. In different regions, social media platforms may develop different social trends, topics, and interactive methods. This allows users to receive unique experience feedback from a single social media platform. Bouffard’s team believes that “the duration of Instagram usage directly affects the happiness level of young couples”, and they believe that “it is because the customized experience of Instagram makes it addictive” (Bouffard et al., 2021), and this gap between couples comes from the unique content provided by social media platforms to users in the context of Splinternet.
Splinternet and Social Cohesion of Social Media
The January 6, 2021 riots in the United States Capitol Building have raised concerns about the fragmentation of the internet. Some people believe that “the Splinternet phenomenon can affect social cohesion, but it is not the root cause of the decrease in social cohesion” (Sims et al., 2021), as users only choose different social media platforms. This viewpoint advocates that diversity can promote the formation of various social circles and communities, without necessarily weakening social cohesion.
This view may be related to “the theory of social media effects” (Olaniran et al., 2020), which suggests that media platforms can influence user behavior and increase the likelihood of triggering various behaviors when information spreads between people through social networks. From this perspective, social media platforms have played a “growth” role in shaping social influence. However, the effects that this increase can produce are often the parts that require our most attention.
However, it should be noted that although social media platforms can be seen as growth tools to some extent, the Splinternet phenomenon still leads to differences in content censorship and regulation. This may lead to limitations and disagreements in the dissemination of information, thereby affecting social cohesion. Lemley likens Splinternet to the “high walls of the internet garden” (Lemley, 2020), which represent government regulation or the filtering of specific content by social media platforms themselves. Such differences may result in certain information not being disseminated on specific social media platforms, thereby limiting public access to different viewpoints and information.
More importantly, Splinternet has to some extent destroyed social capital, weakening trust in important institutions and shared stories. Haidt expressed his dissatisfaction with today’s media platforms in his 2022 article, stating that social media exacerbates polarization, making people more likely to attack each other and further deepening social divides. The powerful influence of social media has to some extent undermined social cohesion within democratic countries, which is “often constructed by social capital, strong institutions, and shared stories” (Haidt, 2022). This is why we cannot ignore the impact of the Splinternet phenomenon on content censorship, regulatory differences, and social capital.
What will we do in the future?
The European Union reported on Splinternet in 2022, stating that the impact of this trend on social media platforms is “unsettling” as it is currently difficult to confirm “whether this trend will bring opportunities or challenges to the internet” (Clément et al., 2022). This cautious move reflects the attitude we should adopt towards Splinternet – in situations where it is difficult to define whether its impact is positive or negative, The practice of not giving it too much attention should be abandoned. We cannot completely stop this trend either, as “a completely free and unrestricted internet has never existed” (Lemley, 2020). Perhaps finding a way to understand each other among these increasingly high walls is what social media platforms should consider in the future.
In the first few parts of this article, we delved into the impact of the Splinternet phenomenon on today’s social media platforms, as well as its complex impact on society and individuals. We first introduced the Splinternet phenomenon, which gradually divides the Internet into independent network ecosystems controlled and managed by different countries, regions, or organizations. Social media platforms, as one of the most important internet carriers in people’s daily lives, have also been deeply influenced by this phenomenon. We point out that social media platforms need to adjust their operational strategies according to regulations and norms in different regions to ensure their operations are legal and compliant. We discussed in detail how Splinternet leads to differences in content censorship and regulation, and the challenges it poses to social media platforms. We emphasize the need for social media companies to balance the complexity of freedom of speech and compliance to adapt to this trend. Subsequently, we proposed Argument 2, which focuses on the impact of the Splinternet phenomenon on the relationship between social media platforms and individuals, including the diversity of user experiences and cultural differences among users on platforms in different regions.
However, we also discussed the relationship between Splinternet and social cohesion. We emphasized that differences in content review and regulation may lead to limitations and disagreements in information dissemination, as well as the destruction of social capital by Splinternet. These factors collectively shape the complexity of the Splinternet phenomenon.
The phenomenon of Splinternet has become a highly anticipated topic in the field of social media today, and its influence will continue to expand in the future. We can expect future research to further explore how Splinternet shapes information flow, social interaction, and individual cognition, as well as the profound impact of these changes on social cohesion, politics, and culture.
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