By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
In November Twitter announced new guidelines designed to cut down on certain types of members based on their views and behavior. An article in the Guardian quotes Twitter: “We are conducting an initial review of verified accounts and will remove verification from accounts whose behavior does not fall within these new guidelines.”
Initially the policy seems to be targeting “far-right activists,” for un-verification. According to the Guardian these include Richard Spencer, Laura Loomer and Tommy Robinson. They are accused of violating guidelines that would restrict those who “promote hate” or support hate groups or “incite or engage in harassment of others.” Ostensibly this seems like good news. But there is a lack of clarify over how it is being applied. Over the years Twitter has attempted to crack down on other forms of extremism. By March 2017 it had suspended 377,000 accounts accused of supporting terrorism, particularly those supporting ISIS. However the “unverified” of accounts does not suspend those accounts, it merely takes away a blue checkmark.
The blue checkmark was not originally designed as a way to police politics, or to show that Twitter or others agreed with the account. The current request for verification notes: “We approve account types maintained by users in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business, and other key interest areas. If you believe your account is of public interest and should be verified, this article outlines information about submitting a request.” This is the latest in several iterations of how Twitter verified accounts. Initially it did it to groups of people, famous people, politicians, journalists, without them approaching twitter. It was given out as a kind of way of saying that this account is who it says it is. Over time that has shifted and initially became more democratic, more like the internet was originally. More open. However now Twitter, like other social media, has shifted. It wants to be a bit more exclusive. As one website notes, “what you do offline could cost you” the blue checkmark. This is a bit Orwellian, Big Brother, type of stuff. It initially targets the far right, because that is an easy target, especially in the West. But what about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former President of Iran? Hasn’t he said some distasteful stuff offline? One suspects that what begins with the “far right” won’t end there. Twitter is now insinuating with the blue checkmark that it agrees with who the person is. This could lead to a problematic interpretation, as if the checkmark is not just verification but a stamp of approval for being a kind of good person on and offline.
Google, which also felt more neutral, more open, is starting to tell us more about what it thinks we should be reading in news. Like Twitter it is basing its assumptions on targeting media that has run afoul of some in the West. BBC now reports that Google will “derank” some publications “in response to allegations about election meddling by President Putin’s government.” According to the report, while speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum, Eric Schmidt said: “We’re well aware of this one, and we’re working on detecting this kind of scenario you’re describing and deranking those kinds of sites.” He singled out two of Russia’s major English-language media, Russia Today and Sputnik online. “I am strongly not in favor of censorship. I am very strongly in favour of ranking. It’s what we do…It’s a very legitimate question as to how we rank, A or B, right? And we do the best we can in millions and millions of rankings every day.” Why? Because these websites had “weaponized information.” They had manipulated readers. But isn’t what a lot of media do? Isn’t there a lot of state-controlled media out there? Isn’t Al-Jazeera associated with the government of Qatar, for instance? Does Russia Today have more biased content than other media run by governments or media in less free environment? Is it more biased than media on the more radical right or left?
If it isn’t enough to be un-verified or de-ranked, one can also be removed completely from an online encyclopedia. On November 17 Haaretz reported that a scientist had his Wikipedia entry removed because editors disagreed with his views on evolution. According to the article, Günter Bechly was “a devout Catholic from Germany, had a promising academic career as a paleontologist.” He was peer-reviewed and notable enough that he had a Wikipedia entry. Then he came out against evolution. “In October, Bechly’s English-language Wikipedia page was deleted, in a case that highlights how the crowdsourced online encyclopedia tries, and many times succeeds, in fending off attempts to politicize scientific content, even in the face of aggressive attempts by religious conservatives.” An behind-the-scenes battle played out. “However, what began as an orderly debate about whether Bechly’s work qualifies him to have his own entry in Wikipedia and whether the entry about him meets the criteria required for academics – standards thoroughly covered by Wikipedia’s general notability guidelines – soon deteriorated into a battle royal between science-minded Wikipedia editors and promoters of creationism.” One would think that the very fact he is embroiled in a controversy would make him notable. Some notable people are famous for being famous. But in this case, apparently not.
In another case at Instagram, a man who travelled to holy sites in the Middle East allegedly had his Instagram page removed for it. Ben Tzion posted photos of himself in mosques and other holy sites in the Middle East. According to an article “photos and videos Ben Tzion posted Monday on his social media accounts from the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina — Islam’s second-holiest site — prompted angry comments from some Muslim users, leading Instagram to suspend his account on Tuesday.” Why? The posts he made didn’t seem offensive. He wrote things such as “Jew in town, casual Tuesday in Beirut Lebanon with Muslim & Jewish Friends at Mohammad Mosque Peace in the MiddleEast.” Was the reason that it was removed, simply because people complained?
Social media is increasingly becoming a minefield. People are fired for Facebook posts and Tweets. In Pakistan a man was sentenced to death because of “blasphemy” on Facebook. A woman was murdered in an “honor killing” over social media. Numerous secular bloggers have been murdered in Bangladesh. In Thailand a man was sentenced to 35 years in prison for insulting the monarchy on social media. A Saudi blogger was also sentenced to lashes for his posts. Social media and other websites have also been banned or pressured in various countries, including North Korea, China, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and Eritrea.
The internet age or information age that has developed in the last decades is now maturing. We have entered the era of the Fifth Estate of media. This has led to many challenges. It has also led to concentration of the marketplace of media in several websites and apps. When Google was founded, it had a novel approach, “Google delivered unusually relevant results compared to the existing search engines. Not only did Google offer superior results, it lacked the growing clutter found on the popular search portals of the time.” Google originated in the late 1990s, but it took a while to get its footing. After acquiring Blogger in 2003 and Youtube in 2006 and by 2009 had 70% of the search market. Facebook was founded in 2004 and overtook MySpace in 2009. Twitter was founded in 2006, by 2010 there had been 20 billion tweets. Snapchat was founded in 2011 but only has 166 million daily users in 2017 (Facebook has 1.3 billion, Instagram has 500 million daily users).
With so much power in the hands of so few and the concentration of information through just a few marketplaces, the decision by these giants to tweak rankings or other ways they verify users, can have huge ripple affects. This is a symbol of how we enter the post-internet age. In the early days the internet was a free for all of experimentation. This led to extreme growth and massive loses as some things came and went. We all know the graveyard of names, such as AOL or Pets.com. Now many states want to control the web, and others want to use the web to manipulate the public. We are still learning how companies track us and also filter the information we receive. There are very real risks that what seemed like a kind of anarchic, democratic and libertarian ideal, a place to shares ideas and information and even a place that could fuel political revolutions, will slowly put up walls. It may become a tool to control, the way it was once a tool to encourage free speech and open minds.