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Kicking dissent out of social media: Does it hurt or help?

Tuesday June 15 2021
Social pic

Supporters of US President Donald Trump clash with police during a riot at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 in Washington. The incident led to Donald Trump being banned from several social media platforms. PHOTO | AFP

By Sam Wambugu

In January this year, the world was outraged to see the American democracy shaken when a rowdy mob invaded the Capitol baying for the blood of leaders in Congress and government.

Many people point an accusing finger at then-President Donald Trump for fanning the flames of dissent, which boiled over on January 6. Subsequently, Mr Trump was banished by several social media outlets. His curated content and profile were removed.

Although social media had expelled other people before President Trump, his removal from several social media platforms was the most notable. His eviction from social media sites led to an explosion of the use of the term “deplatform” – a verb meaning to deny someone or an institution the ability to post on social media. Thus, it is simply an eviction from the platform.

Eviction from social media occurs when its owners deem the posted content unacceptable and going against the terms of service of the platform. The evicted person or institution is regarded dangerous to the society.

Deplatforming can also include removing cloud infrastructure providers, domain name providers, and other web-related services from the unwanted group. It may also involve not just banning the user or discontinuing his services, but also removing any existing content the user previously created on the site or service.

Deplatforming people is meant to cut their ability to communicate with the public using social media tools. But do they lose that ability? The public is divided on this issue. Some raise ethical concerns. They see deplatforming as a ploy to curtail free speech. Others see it as an effective strategy to reduce hate speech and calls for violence on social media.

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Whether deplatforming reduces the level of hate speech is an issue up for debate. However, people who are deplatformed often become more popular because the announcement to expel them and erase their content causes curiosity, leading to more online searches for their name.

Also, people who are deplatformed are likely to go underground and sign up anew with pseudo names and perpetuate their agenda covertly or use their surrogate to spread their beliefs. For example, people sympathetic to a deplatformed group could build their hosting infrastructure and use it to drive out content.

Monitoring social media is a tough farm to plough. Attempts to monitor people or institutions is a digital version of the hide-and-seek game, with the social media surveillance apparatus chasing ghost profiles.

Unlike traditional media such as radio and television governed by rules and regulations, social media cannot strictly be monitored, and offenders quickly nabbed and punished.

And laws are difficult to enforce for the billions of people on the internet, some of whom have sophisticated tools to evade online traps laid for them.

This leaves countries in a conundrum — damned if they deplatform. Damned if they don’t.

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SamWambungu is an Inforrmatician [email protected]
Twitter: #Samwambugu2