Social BAD
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Social BAD

Social media’s complicity in the Capitol Hill riots and what that means for the platforms and for business

Capitol Hill riots planned in plain sight on social media. Parler backed and founded by Russians.

The shocking events at the Capitol on January 6th, which resulted in five people dying, were not a surprise to many of us – the riots were openly planned in plain sight across major social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook.

In fact, social media has been at the heart of the whole insurrection. The rabble posted selfies and videos to their watch groups while they attacked staffers and despoil the space, and boasted openly about what they had done across their social media profiles. In the wake of the lack of arrests and retribution by Capitol Police (some of whom appear to have been hand in glove with the mob), we have seen a huge push by the public to identify the troublemakers on social media and report them to the FBI and police.

Social Media’s response

Following the attack we saw Spotify, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram ban Trump almost immediately, reluctantly followed by YouTube. Parler – the far right wing social media platform where many Trump supporters took up residence last year – has found itself booted offline. The network, where extremists turned to rally insurgents and organise future uprisings, was deemed an “ongoing and urgent public safety threat” by Google. Apple rejected Parler’s plan to moderate its content as being insufficient and Amazon removed Parler from its servers on Sunday after giving the app many warnings about violent content that were either insufficiently dealt with or ignored. In addition, Amazon employees had asked that the web giant “deny Parler services until it removes posts inciting violence, including at the Presidential inauguration. While Parler is now trying to sue Amazon, it doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

Parler lives on

However, why should they care? They’ve now restarted on Russian hosted servers, and clearly looking at the history of the platform it is a set up by the Russians to try and destabilise American democracy and create chaos. The sad thing is that the far right have fallen for it hook and sinker and it looks like it’ll end up undermining the social media and media as well since they have been so slow to respond to the threat over the years and take it seriously. Indeed, it seems Facebook is now seriously considering reinstating Trump’s account, which seems incredibly dangerous as he remains a rallying point for many Americans who have been – as the Proud bBoys said – hoodwinked.

The actions of the social media networks – mostly deemed too little and too late by the general public – have triggered a fierce discussion amongst the far right pundits and Trump supporters about the responsibility and powers of the social media networks to remove profiles and censor what is shared. While many on the far right keep yelling about ‘free speech’ (by which they mean the freedom to threaten to kill someone or rally support to destroy a centre of democracy if their rabid posts and support for the rioters is anything to go by), social media employees and the general public have long been concerned about the lack of checks and balances on social media. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have often been warned that allowing online hatred and extremism result in real world violence – and the Nazi attacks on the Capitol is the consequence of that, while letting them plot and organise their violent and murderous attacks on social media is a complete failure of corporate responsibility and makes the platforms culpable.

As Yaël Eisenstat, a former CIA intelligence officer who worked on Facebook election policy before resigning in frustration, said. “Inciting your followers to engage in insurrection is a high form of treason and allowing your platform to be used for that purpose makes you complicit.”

Real life upsets and violence is inevitable when online aggression is allowed to escalate because emotion never stays online. It spills over, as we saw with the Pizzagate attack, (which was triggered by beliefs fostered online that there was a basement there where children were being sexually assaulted and trafficked), the Christchurch mosque murders (which was carried out by a terrorist radicalised on YouTube and who live streamed it for his community’s approval) and in how Facebook ignore countless warnings about an ‘event’ that resulted in double shooting in Kenosha in summer 2020.

Social goodness

In my new book, Social Goodness, I examine how people are increasingly demanding that business behave better and become more responsible – and how this has, and is likely to, play out across the social media platforms as their algorithms have been increasingly fine tuned to gain more traffic and increase time spent on the platform, and so boost their advertising.

Social media algorithms are extremely effective at identifying what appeals to people and what makes act, all the better to deliver targeted advertising to their clients  i.e. advertisers. In doing so they show people stuff that they wouldn’t have otherwise seen, connect them to people and ideas (and lies and false claims) that they wouldn’t have otherwise been aware of, and create echo chambers where an idea can seem to be approved by ‘everyone’ and quickly amplify, especially when appointed or non-appointed leaders approve of their actions and prod them to ever more extreme responses.

This is extremely dangerous and as Michelle Obama said:

“Now is the time for companies to stop enabling this monstrous behavior — and go even further than they have already by permanently banning this man from their platforms and putting in place policies to prevent their technology from being used by the nation’s leaders to fuel insurrection.” 

So what happens next?

Stripe will no longer process payments for Trump’s campaign website and online fundraising. Major banks and corporations have stopped – or are reviewing – their donations to the Republican Party. Marriott International Inc. said has suspended donations to Republican senators who voted against certifying President-elect Joe Biden, after considering the “destructive events” on Wednesday

The majority of people in America and worldwide are appalled at what happened, and  disgusted by the participants, many of whom have found themselves out of a job and/or their businesses boycotted. Many have also been reported by their social contacts to the police and FBI, despite the Capitol Police seemingly giving them unrestricted access and a free pass out again.

The long years that the social media platforms have spent giving Trump more rope than he needed to cause a riot and undermine democracy mean that any action they take now is too little, too late. Biden wants to revoke Section 230 and as we have seen, Michelle Obama has called on Silicon Valley to permanently ban Trump and change things in order to prevent platform abuse by future leaders.

In truth, the platforms have already allowed Trump such a free rein in the pursuit of traffic and engagement to further feed their advertiser numbers, that they have already created a monster. Who were they serving as they created that monster? The golden goose of course, advertisers, as these are the ones that fill their coffers.

It is time for social media’s clients – advertisers, businesses – to challenge the networks and boycott them to make them change their algorithms and policies.  CMOs and social media managers might be the most unlikely superheroes in the world, but your time is now. You need to stop social advertising, tell them why because you – their clients – are the only ones they will listen to.

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