In recent days tens of thousands of Nazis, white supremacists, and sundry other racist footsloggers from the conspiracy fuelled, tin-foil-hat brigade have found themselves thrown off their social media platforms following the attempted violent overthrow of the Electoral College process at the completion of the US election cycle.
Five people died in the riots.
That’s lead to a growing chorus from their fellow travellers in the mainstream right-wing media that the real issue is free speech and falling numbers of Twitter followers, and not, for instance, a police officer being beaten to death with a fire extinguisher by insurrectionists storming the US Capitol complex.
Still, there is no dispute that the events in the US last week brought the role of big technology companies and in particular social media businesses in providing the digital bloodstream through which hate has metastasised over the last decade into sharper relief.
But to those arguing the issue is free speech, the response pro-democracy and anti-hate speech lobby group Reset is, “not so fast”.
Instead, the group which is part of a global initiative working to counter digital threats to democracy argues the real threat from giant social media platforms and other big tech outfits is there unchecked algorithms and data usage and that the current debate about closing someone’s social media account is a distraction.
According to Chris Cooper, executive director of the Australian affiliate, “It’s right for there to be concern about a few tech billionaires with no accountability making these decisions, but ultimately debates around free speech end up being quite a convenient distraction for the platforms.
“It means we focus too much on what an individual is posting, rather than on the algorithms that have created a toxic environment and fuelled real-world violence.
“Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have done nothing to meaningfully address issues of hate speech and misinformation because they profit from the high engagement rates it generates on their platforms.”
New rules for social media need to come with greater transparency and understanding of how these algorithms operate and the extent of misinformation and hate speech online.
“Only the platforms have a bird’s eye view of how the algorithms work, and what content is getting amplified. We need an audit so that we can begin to understand how exactly they operate and how they can meet community expectations.”
Reset Australia says it wants a Live List, which would see digital platforms compelled to maintain a list of the most viral URLs being shared on the platforms. They argue such a list could be used by public health officials, journalists, and academics to effectively track and trace misinformation online and then better target public health messaging.
“Regardless of how we use social media, or whether we use it at all – we are all affected by the current lack of accountability.
“It is no longer acceptable to have a user-beware style model when it comes to social media and digital platforms.
“Australian authorities and the Australian public should be able to answer questions like: What kind of content is being amplified by these platforms? Who made it? What kind of demographics are consuming it? To do that we need a live list of the most contentious issues our society is facing, so we can begin to tackle misinformation collectively and transparently.
“Tech giants have created platforms that produce both mega-profits and serious societal problems. If they accept the profits, they must also accept the oversight.”
“We’ve seen in Europe that voluntary codes have largely been ignored by the platforms. In Australia the digital platforms offered ACMA a very weak disinformation code, based on a failed EU version.”
Australia should implement rules that require platforms to be transparent about closing someone’s account and offer a way for them to appeal it. However, Mr Cooper said Australian politicians should resist falling into the free speech vs censorship debate.