‘Justice for Ali!’ was the cry ringing around my little corner of Twitter (or at least it was, before the ‘Colston Four’ verdict came in) following Twitter’s decision to ban ‘Politics for All’ and its associated accounts. (If you’re unfamiliar with the joke, the second ‘l’ in their actual Twitter handle was actually an uppercase i.)
An online brand built up by a group of young people, and at one point reportedly valued at a six-figure sum by a potential buyer, has been snuffed out overnight. And whilst there is much we don’t know and will likely never know about why this happened, the explanations seem rather lacking.
For starters, there doesn’t seem to have been any explanation offered initially at all. And when one was forthcoming, other observers have pointed out that the alleged transgression – basically using multiple accounts to retweet each other and drive engagement – is nothing that mainstream media outlets haven’t been doing for years.
The same goes for the other post-hoc justifications, such as allegations that Politics For All sometimes put a heavy slant on stories (although it always links to the original source in the second tweet, so checking for oneself wasn’t exactly difficult).
Regardless of the specifics of this particular case, however, the story once again puts the spotlight on an important question: how should we respond to the fact that increasingly large and important parts of what we might term the ‘public square’ are on platforms privately owned and developed by corporations?
After all, it is quite right in a narrow sense to argue that Twitter has the right to ban whoever it likes; there is no right to use of its platform – although it seems unlikely those people would take a similarly libertarian position on a private company’s rights vis-à-vis free speech for an entirely non-essential business, such as a bakery.
Likewise, if we think about how the United Kingdom regulates traditional media there is generally an understanding that the state should not heavily involve itself in what newspapers publish. If Twitter is simply a 21st-century publisher, should we not extend it the same courtesy?
We should remember, however, that Twitter doesn’t present itself to its users that way. Indeed, social media companies go to great lengths to convince regulators that they are neutral platforms whose content users basically curate themselves. If they are to serve as conveyors, if not formal purveyors, of news media, our more regulated television news seems a closer baseline.
But there is probably a better case for treating them as something entirely new. Even in TV news, for example, there are multiple stations for viewers to choose between – and the existence of the choice signals to consumers something about the potentially limited or partisan nature of the product.
This is not true of platforms such as Twitter or Facebook. And if social media has perhaps in the past been dismissed as somehow frivolous or non-essential, that is no longer the case today, when we recognise the increasingly important role the digital space plays in our elections and democratic life.
Nor have we any reason to expect it to stop growing. Just this week, we got a preview of what shopping might be like in Facebook’s mooted ‘Metaverse’, the very name of which is a clear signal of the company’s ambition.
In America, always a few steps ahead on such things, there is growing controversy over pressure being brought to bear on crowd-funding and e-commerce platforms to undermine or block the activities of political opponents.
One solution, of course, is simply to go and set up marginal alternatives catering to the outgroup. But this doesn’t really solve the question of ownership of the public square; is it really plausible to imagine vast swathes of civil society organisations setting themselves up with a Parler account?
Likewise, given the increasingly vital role online plays for many businesses, it seems fair to at least explore whether the owners of mass platforms should be subject to some requirements about provision of services on a neutral and accountable basis.
None of this means that steps towards state regulation should be taken lightly. As we saw during the row over Leveson II, and the fit of hysterics in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, there is no guarantee that more involvement by politicians or regulators necessarily leads to an even-handed and neutral approach.
But unlike the tech barons, they are at least accountable to Parliament and the electorate. And it may one day be in all our interests to have some say over who governs the Metaverse.
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