Big Tech is Weaponized Media: Or Why Social Media, Even After Deplatforming, Still Backs the Trump Insurrection Conspiracists

Social Media Companies are Not the Good Guys. They are Not Even “Tech.” (They are, However, Mostly Guys.) These Massive Mass Media Companies are Worse than Too Little, Too Late in Deplatforming the President and Parler

De-platforrming the President and Parler is probably the necessary choice right now, but can we begin by acknowledging how awful the big tech choice is: continue banning an insurrectionist in chief or not seeding media conspiracy evidence to his conspiratorial followers?

How did we get here? How did tech get so much power and at the same time get so good at exercising so little of it? Perhaps an analogy can help. Dystopian analogies often make for too easy boogeymen, but this one — social media tech is weapons — has the advantage of taking tech companies’ own arguments seriously. Imagine, for an awful moment or two, that social media companies were right: what if the Facebooks, Instagrams, and Twitters of the world actually are tech? (They are not.) What if after a decade of tech utopian posturing, social media companies today are just what they claimed to be — actual technology companies, not media companies subject to FCC oversight, rules, and procedures that would tame the Wild West of weaponized words we now find ourselves within? What if they were tech companies that profited on weaponization?

In short, it would not be pretty. The following hypothetical has two stages: first, let’s consider all social media as military weapon manufactures and, second, let’s promote you, my reader of early-morning scribbles, to a CEO of one of these manufacturers. Descend with me into this two-stage dystopia: first, suppose that, for the last fifteen years, there were no social media networks and that private military weapon manufacturer and contractors have been distributing to billions of people worldwide military-grade weapons and the training that comes with them — [ehm, tech, for short in this analogy] — and then justifying, under the guise of absolutist second amendment rights, their profiting off of weaponizing insurrectionist groups who would generate profits for the manufacturers by practicing war games and military exercises. (“Guns don’t kill people” is the equivalent to “big tech is just the platform.”) Until 2020, most of those military contractors handsomely would have profited from a steady stream of encouraging a mixed up scrum of paramilitary groups: why would our (social media) weapon manufacturers do any differently, after all? If private weapons companies profit from all these self-organizing groups doing paramilitary training, from flexing their growing tech muscles to intimidate and impress other paramilitary groups, then the military tech contractors benefit the most from enflaming all sides, all factions. In a clear analogy to the social media casino designs, the more people find addicting marching and training for factional fighting, the more people are prone to do it. And then the more other people see the factions marching, the more join in. What sensible checks and balances might curb such a dystopia war tech escalation?

Now imagine that — in our dystopian hypothetical, surprise, surprise — various political factions actually makes good on their militarized tech threats by electing to the highest office in various countries enablers and wanna-be authoritarians willing to take advantage of whatever power — whether through paramilitaries or what we might call the “paramedia” of Fox News, OAN, Newsmax, and the like — their voters and viewers will give him. After four or five years of saber-rattling in the US, one such enabler-in-chief then manages to incite a portion of his base to march against the very mechanisms that would keep his power in check. His base, trained with military-grade weaponry in hand, then rallies and marches on the Capitol. Insert the attempted insurrection events last week except that, instead of marching with self-broadcasting phones, plastic ties, and Molotov cocktails in hand, they marched with militarized weapons.

Now, for the second step: let's twist the hypothetical one more half-turn. Imagine that, instead of being a horrified bystander or even accidental participant in this mounting factionalism, you are the CEO of a military-grade weapons manufacturer. You are fabulously wealthy. You are probably guided, personally and publicly, by ideologies as tenacious and as toxic as that, say, “states and private corporations are antithetical” (yet still we will have the most lobbyists in DC), that second amendment rights are absolute (or the first), and that “tech” is best left unregulated. But, as Jeremy Packer and Joshua Reeves elaborate in Killer Apps, since your profits depend on working a savvy radar for public sentiments, you also understand that when the conversation turns to awful content such as war (read the analogy: “media”), of course, the state should be centrally involved: paramilitaries are a bad look, as are para-media companies. Since all people (whether they work for the DoD, FCC, or not) demand rules and regulations in times of war and media alike, you, the social media CEO, insist on self-describing as content-less, faction-less “tech platform”: your company is “just” a neutral platform for spreading war.

What to do? Well, first, here are three things you — our proverbial CEO of a military-grade weapons manufacturer — will emphatically not do.

  1. No matter what, you will never publicly acknowledge that your company and its industry peers are principally responsible over the last fifteen years for an unprecedented escalation and concentration of paramilitary tech power in the hands of everyday people. You have made your career off of celebrating ideologies — namely, absolutist corruptions of the second amendment — that let you shift that responsibility squarely onto the weapon-strapped shoulders of the people themselves. To acknowledge your responsibility would be political and profit suicide.
  2. Even though you are perfectly aware that not all of your peers are equally responsible, and that some weapons-grade tech manufacturers are more responsible than others, it is very unlikely that you will ever openly support the regulation or shuttering of one of your industry peers, since, in order for the principle of free-market competition to protect you in your own irresponsibilities (such as the irresponsibility of your wanting to buy up these different manufacturers under one roof), those protections must also be strong enough to cover your industry peers, even when worse behaved than you. You want to own as many of them as you can eventually — and when it comes down to it, you realize perfectly well that the profit pie is so much bigger than any one country — so you firmly stand by principles that none* of your peers face responsibility checks.
  3. *There is, however, at least one exception: you and your fellow CEOS would willingly unplug any upstart, johnny-come-lately weapons-grade manufacturer competitor that would be small and stupid enough to buck the prevailing ideological protection you enjoy: namely, if one company were foolish enough to basically brand themselves as creating weapons and training for only one political faction — a local NRA shooting club without the safety on or “a Twitter without rules” as Parler branded itself — then they would be setting a precedent that, if followed, would squarely align factional politics with these para-tech companies (whether military or media). If other war tech companies started to imitate that, not only would it bite into your piece of the tech pie, but it would set an awful precedent in which tech companies could be held directly responsible for all the political actions of their aligned factions. Whipping sweat from your brow as you scroll through images of the roving bands you have amplified, what you have created, you remind yourself: “I. cannot. be. held. responsible. for. that!”

In other words, as a self-interested war tech CEO, you would likely put yourself in the position that the CEOs of the big tech social media giants — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, and Apple — did this week: you would ban your runt competitor that allied with the wrong market opportunity. “Imagine serving only one faction,” your CEO alter-ego demurs, “and not just all factionalism!”

All analogies have limits, of course, and the strained simile of social media companies as weapon manufacturers has many. A few pops to mind: not all social media content is bullets and bayonets. It is hard today to see how social media have been amplifying the militarization of our politics because social media also pacifies and distracts us in cat videos, memes, and a hundred other pleasant social vanities. They also help us coordinate and have genuinely useful roles (as does a well-regulated militia). Also, at least since the recent implosion of the NRA as a national organization, social media companies are probably better at lobbying than the gun lobby: the militants without social media would have trouble organizing so quickly on J street and on public squares, even though rallies do much of the same pathological crowd stimulation. No doubt there are other differences.

Still, the analogy between social media and military weaponry suggests, I hope, that a few elements are our reality, here and now on the eve of a political transition in the US, are worse than we usually recognize.

Here are three that hold, I think, no matter what your point of view on factional American politics right now….

A. Big tech — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, Apple, and also countless unnamed supporting data and tech infrastructure companies — is NOT the good guy today, not this week, not this year, not in the last fifteen years. It is in its self-interest to continue serving up unaffiliated buffets of factional infighting. No shifting of the political winds will change their core position (even if they’ll take advantage of the good praise they receive from political expedient decisions). The moment social media companies started pretending they were not media (a word that is literally in the name) but “tech,” the networked content media companies started wedging wider and wider an unregulated loophole for profiting on privatizing the data we generate through amplifying our own coarse factionalism, consumerism, and vaingloriousness. The more we fight, the more we feed its coffers. In this obvious sense, we, all people, are also social media, so if we are not regulable, all of us are lost. Zuckerberg, Dorsey, and others are not our political allies, no matter how much we may rejoice in their de-platforming Trump or his inner cabal of Vanilla Isis factionists. (In my home, there was much spontaneous dancing and palpable psychic relief once the President’s Twitter could no longer be checked — a relief that lasted several minutes until the pseudo accounts started popping up.)

B. Big tech is not “tech” at all — these are media companies and they have been avoiding the responsibility of moderating public content for more than a decade and a half. As Mitali Thakor develops, the moderation of universally awful content has long been off-shored to poor brown and black people for pennies on the dollar or police organizations to sift through our networked evil. But hate speech? Incitement to violence? Public wrongs? The on-ramp for building responsible content moderation at this point is both very urgent and very short. This is not just a technical or social challenge: it is also political since, thanks to big tech riding in on the coattails of the Cold War, so many today struggle to distinguish proper content moderation from the bugbear of censorship. Under the guise of “moving fast and breaking things,” these “big tech” media companies have been deferring FCC concerns by calling “technology” and off-loading responsibility onto exotic-sounding “algorithms” to shed accountability for the fact that their companies are not just platforms — they hold, own, and profit off of the reactiveness of the content we give them, toxic or not. This is not big tech, this is bigger. We are talking about the new mass media. By the millions and billions of users, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and (even the wanna-be runt) Parler are all massive mass media. Indeed, if half the world population on social media today is not a mass, then the twenty-first century has no word for what was the mainstay of twentieth-century mass media. Mass media bear public responsibility because they communicate with and ultimately as the public. If the twentieth century was an age of toxic radioactivity, perhaps ours is an age of toxic network-reactivity.

C. The decisions this last week to de-platform the President and Parler is not just too little, too late: it is also a particularly not sustainable move with ugly downstream consequences. It may be right in quelling insurrection but it is not sustainable, and not just because censorship is wrong. Rather it will remain the wrong move because it gives precisely the real-life evidence — a decision made without public accountability, without trail, without procedure — that a minority faction of conspiratorial insurrectionists will need recruit followers already happy to bow publicly to the sacred cow of anti-censorship (to which, the more careful among them may now add anti-trust). Had social media been subject to public oversight and regulation, there would at least be means for adjudicating not only this decision — but, had it been implemented decades before, a generation of other social media management decisions. There is no ultimate principle to govern all media: censorship is obviously not good, nor is genuflecting before the idol of anti-censorship, absolutist free speech, militarized second amendments, or whatever other doctrinal absolutes the messy system of conflicting rights is meant to check. Still, none of these observations are likely to bring pause to the conspiratorially-inclined factions who will skim over the uncomfortable free-market private business parallel between social media companies banning users for widely-posted policies against hate speech and bakers refusing to make cakes for gay weddings; no, the decade and a half of irresponsible negligence, spruced up with tech-utopian coverup talk, has welcomed and given broad passage to everyone who can set up an echo-chamber Facebook group, including a core of white supremacist insurrectionists that have covered over with wishful and unfounded grievances even their own conscience’s capacity to acknowledge that the economic system is no longer working only for them. And worse, now, social media has given these minority of wishful insurrectionists, at the very moment they lose access to power, precisely the evidence of media conspiracy and last-minute justification they so need to use their grievances to recruit others. Social media, by failing to be responsible for a decade and a half, has, rightly or wrongly, given the insurrectionists the evidence of media conspiracy they need to not die out quickly. And media conspiracies are no laughing matter: they are what make an ordinarily-checkable extreme theory into politically uncheckable conspiracy theories. (It is not just that I am no doubt wrong about many things in this post, it is that the tin or Viking-hatter can now intone, “Well, of course that is what Peters would say, given he is on all the liberal social media platforms?” Once the means for theorizing appear corrupt, it is hard to check even the most clueless theories.)

Sensible system-wide political content moderation on social media should have been happening for the last decade and a half. It should have a political framing that has nothing to do with political censorship: basic commonsense acknowledges that not all free speech is equally good speech and that all speakers are responsible for the consequences of their speech, no matter how free. But now that this nation or the watching world are reeling in the wake of the first attempted coup incited by its own President, it is very hard for anyone — the general public, regulators, CEOs, or the insurrectionists — to acknowledge that the world is wholly unprepared to process what more than a decade of denying the grayscale differences between content moderation and censorship has wrought upon our nation and world.

Still “fixing” tech should not, of course, be the top priority for the Biden administration, even though it may very well become so given how technocratic administrations share much with Silicon Valley’s tech utopian crush on “solutions”: no, if we are to make headway into addressing the underlying causes of legitimate grievances, the USA should focus on righting the core wrongs of systemic poverty and racial injustice, among others. Healthcare, criminal justice reform, and the basic needs of all people remain paramount. Public information fiduciaries, in the language of Jonathan Zittrain and Jack Balkin, might help redress the harms of social media. Until then, social media remains a kind of unregulated weaponized mass media. While few of us are practicing actual war games on one another after last week’s attempted coup at the Capitol, the social media companies have weaponized themselves and their users against acknowledging their own responsibility in moderating content that it profits and civil society suffers from. More than a decade of irresponsibility has forced “big tech,” in both our nation and the insurrectionists’ time of need, to hand over to the least responsible among us the very media conspiracy they so desperately want to believe in.

Social media are not broken. They are on fire.

(To read more, a few rockstar colleagues and I have co-edited a forthcoming book, Your Computer is on Fire, issuing seventeen keynote statements on why technology is far worse than broken, including the extraordinary work of Sarah Roberts and Mitali Thakor on content moderation. It is due out in March. Stay tuned)

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Ben Peters

Media prof (TU), author, editor, theorist, historian, ultimate frisbeeist