The year that changed the Internet

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The year that changed the Internet

Now that we are still just in the beginning of the new year, when expectations are still high and when promises for a better year ahead are nearly suffocating, we all turn our eyes towards the biggest platform that has every existed for some guidance in this unpredictable future. The Internet has become the closest tool of every human, across all ages and professional backgrounds. 2020 was the year when the need to contain misinformation and manage the rapid circulation of news reached unprecedented, for the decade, levels. And in this turbulent year, the social media platforms acquired a new role, one that will accompany them now for the next decades to come. They became platforms of truth, whose main role was none other than the verification of political statements and the issuing of reports that denounced misleading bulletins. But can these media giants maintain and fortify their newfound integrity? Or will this task be a tad too challenging for them in an already too fast-paced world?

For year, social media platforms had held firm; just because a post was false, this didn’t mean they had something to do with it. Their role wasn’t to serve as corrective devices of misinformation and false statements. 2020 changed their minds.

For the first time at the end of May, Twitter labeled a tweet from former US President Donald Trump as potentially misleading. It was the first time that a fact-checking device was used and was visible to all Twitter users. Within a day, Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Fox News to reassure viewers that Facebook has a ‘different policy’ and that social media platforms shouldn’t be the ‘arbiters of truth’. But as we got closer to the November 2020 elections, much of Trump’s Facebook page and more than a third of Trump’s Twitter feed was plastered with warning labels and fact-checks. This is a striking visual manifestation of the way that 2020 transformed the internet.

Among the several aspects of daily life that the pandemic shook to their core was the internet itself. In the face of a public-health crisis that was unprecedented in the social-media age, platforms were unusually bold in removing traces of COVID019 information.  At a time when people turned to the media for guidance, it became their role to convey ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’. And these giants of information learned a valuable lesson, one that will probably shape their role in the coming years: they should intervene in more and more cases when users post content that might lead to social harm. Content moderation comes to evert content platform eventually, and leaders of the tech market are now beginning to understand the significance of this fact.

Gone is the naïve optimism of social media platforms’ early days, when executives insisted that more speech was always the answer to troublesome speech. Nothing symbolizes this better nearly as Facebook’s decision in October to start banning Holocaust denial, an evolution in the future of one of the biggest speech platforms in the world. And yet the evolution continued, when Facebook announced in December that it would join platforms such as YouTube and TikTok in removing false claims about COVID-19 vaccines.

This tide changed, however, when Twitter, for the first time actively and decisively intervened in the operation of these media by banning Trump from its platform. And just one week after this was boldly achieved, the Washington Post posted a report claiming that misinformation about election fraud fell by a whopping 73%. Twitter’s ban two days after the storming of the US Capitol Hill building came as a response to the continuous dissemination of false claims and misleading facts, acquiring the role of a regulator in the information market. Twitter isn’t the only one muzzling the outgoing President however, with Facebook banning Trump on January 7th and then Snapchat silencing him on January 13th due to concerns about incitement to violence.

As platforms grow more comfortable with their power, they recognize that they have options beyond taking down posts or leaving them up. The discussion soon becomes much more critical and revolves around someone else having a say in what can and cannot be said. Moderating misinformation, managing the circulation of unwanted according to some arbitrarily set criteria information and other functions of social media are to be brought under the microscope now more than ever. It is not simply the managing of the false information that penetrates the internet, but it is the horizontal subjection of all users of these platforms to the same rules that seem to question the existence of freedom of speech and expression.

The fundamental opacity of these systems remains, no matter how rapid their progression is. When social media platforms announce new policies, assessing whether they can and will enforce them consistently has always had challenges. Who can ensure that these newfound regulations will be applied and that the standards will indeed be enforced? The vastness of these networks limits the ability of social media executives to keep track of everything they intend to bring under some control. And the simplicity that is alluring in the concept of information management is ultimately the challenge that has to be overridden if these platforms are to become something other than forums of speech and exchange of ideas.

As platforms cracked down to harmful content, others saw this as an opportunity and marked themselves as ‘free speech’ refuges for aggrieved users. Conservatives that were fact-checked by Facebook and Twitter soon switched to other platforms, seeking other means to keep up with their daily content sharing without owning up to the circulation of false facts they were causing.

The whole media ecosystem is constantly evolving, constantly trying to keep up with the changes of all sectors of life and constantly coming under attack for the little tweaks it is trying to apply so as to make the environment well-functioning. No one says that we should bow down to the tech giants, agree to the minimization of out ability to share our thoughts and ides freely and become simple users in an endless sea of monitoring. But some, if not most, of the readers of this article may also agree that the massive waves of misinformation and fake news that are threatening to destabilize our political systems have to be managed in some way. The delegation of this task to someone with the skills, knowledge and ability is the tricky part. But if not now, then when?

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Tags: , Last modified: July 18, 2021