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Social Media, The Paradoxical Freedom Of Speech, And Our Increasingly Defenseless Identities

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Social Media, The Paradoxical Freedom Of Speech, And Our Increasingly Defenseless Identities

This is Part 1 of a two-part series that analyzes Twitter, a live case study that has provided salient lessons about power, control, politics and the future direction of community and the platforms that govern them.

We’ve had a unique privilege to live through and consume the absurdity of Twitter in the latter part of 2022. Elon Musk, whether intentioned or not, has kept his new acquisition in the news with weekly antics that has left everyone shaking their head, wondering if the next decision would be a witness to stronger user retaliation that would unseat the previous one. This fresh and quickly perturbed new owner of Twitter has succeeded in dismantling a community and bulldozing obscure new rules while creating a new daily chaos. What Elon has quickly realized was that he was unable to enact his wishes in a bubble. His tweets, his policies were live experiments of his new role, put under a microscope for the world to witness and judge. He quickly realized he could not control the users of his own platform, many of whom were journalists, tech practitioners and ethicists. As a recent analysis by the Washington Post concluded“if he was smart, he would realize he isn’t running a technology company so much as it is a humanity company.

Under the guise of Freedom of Speech, he has unleashed a disturbing undercurrent of alternative culture that has upended Twitter, permitting fringe values to permeate a platform that has marked the exit of advertisers and some of the most engaged, steady users of Twitter. This phraseology, “freedom of speech,” is a red herring that continues to divide our politics, and catalyze the online behavior, to the detriment of many. Are our increasingly online identities in peril, as “Freedom of Speech” and its disparate interpretations conveniently shape and justify the actions that continue to pit people against each other? It begs the question that if social media platforms continue to operate without constraints, what is the human cost?

The right to free speech is a human right. Constitutionally, it is our absolute right to freely express our views. And, in social media, it must also come in lock step with the mechanisms to protect those views “without fear of retaliation, censorship or legal sanction.” What does it really mean to be able to exercise this fundamental right online? And what are the implications to us as individuals in a society where our online identities, are increasingly vulnerable to exposure, manipulation and ultimately, without safe guardrails? A few months ago, Prof Galloway penned a blog calling for full ID transparency in social media:

“The prevalence of anonymous accounts and bots has evolved into a sociopolitical scourge. It has threatened the integrity of our elections, divided our nation, and — as Jonathan Haidt put it — systematically made us more stupid. We should change course and require proof of identity online.”

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Fast forward weeks later when Elon Musk officially took over of Twitter and his intention to bring free speech to fix the partisanship in the platform, created a live case study that happily rallied a conservative base while the more liberal voices were up in arms shouting an attack on democratic norms. Is full transparency the answer to begin to fix the divergent views, quell the hostile acts that divide our society, remove the scourge of fake accounts and bots and bring to light those who choose to hide behind the safety of anonymous accounts, or are we opening another Pandora’s box that puts more individuals and groups at risk in the process?

We will examine the future of social media and whether the continued cultivation towards healthy discourse favors a path towards transparency or anonymity.

I reached out to specialists in Digital Identity, Trust and Safety, Data Privacy and Journalism to weigh in on the drama we had laid witness to and its implications to social media and its users.

Kaliya Young, also known as Identity Woman, has spent the last 20 years of her career focused on one thing: supporting the emergence of an identity layer of the internet that works for and empowers people. Young argues that there is a difference between the platform knowing who someone is and the whole world knowing someone’s identity.

“The World of Warcraft decided to stop people from using their handles in online discussion boards and people freaked out. World of Warcraft knows who all these people are – they pay for the platform with a credit card. But this public outing is where some of the issue resides.”

And this is where the rubber hits the road. Not long after Musk took control of Twitter, he changed the rules for Verified Identities to address the issues around fake accounts. Previously, these identities were hard to come by, being used to separate notable personalities, and distinguish journalists from the rest of the pack. What we soon observed was an explosion of paid verified accounts, clearly without identity verification, parodying famous people and companies, including Musk himself. One incident with Eli Lily exposed the real issue amplified by Senator Bernie Sanders:

Let’s be clear. Eli Lilly should apologize for increasing the price of insulin by over 1,200% since 1996 to $275 while it costs less than $10 to manufacture. The inventors of insulin sold their patents in 1923 for $1 to save lives, not to make Eli Lilly’s CEO obscenely rich.”

Sometimes the counter narrative from a fake account unveils the very problems that exist today. Brands try to control the narrative and this Musk faux pas created an opening that could not be disputed by –even by Eli Lilly and Company.

Jeff Doctor is Cayuga from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. He is an Impact Strategist with Animikii Indigenous Technology. This stunt is not new to him, given his involvement in counterculture and speaking truth to power:

“ … it’s an entire Twitter account that doesn’t do anything other than point out a few basic facts. It was successful because people knew what it was saying was true and are tired of being lied to, so every like, every retweet, was a small act of rebellion… Parody has long been a weapon used by the oppressed that sometimes [is] the only way to address [untruths] through sheer mockery. When these spaces are open, we have to take them, because it won’t be long until they are closed off again under a return to ‘normalcy’, to ‘law and order’. That’s what I saw on that glorious day, Twitter at its best where ‘regular people’ figured out how to speak truth to power, gaming an algorithm that was meant to promote advertising and ‘engagement’ – the very things that they were hijacking to get their message out. “

Abigail Dubiniecki, Privacy Lawyer, who advocates, writes, trains and advises on Data Privacy attributed the Twitter billionaire’s blind spot to his privilege and his erroneous belief that equates payment with integrity:

“The fake accounts laid bare to this fallacy while striking a double blow: undercutting the money equals a validity narrative and weaponizing it against corporate greed. It is subversion in the truest sense. The desire and ability to do both would have been easily foreseeable by anyone who could see past their own arrogance to consider possible negative consequences. A wealthy man who knows no consequence is understandably unable to foresee them.”

Dominic Madori-Davis, Senior Writer at Techcrunch, who typically writes about the inequities within technology and venture capital had noticed the Eli Lilly account performed like an activist, eventually hitting the pharmaceutical behemoth where it mattered the most:

“Their stock crashed immediately afterward. In some ways, it has shown how so many aspects of our lives are tied to economic markets, and that the well-being of our citizens is something a company could easily switch to fix and adhere to, but because of how our system is set up, this would come at the expense of the company itself. They [Eli Lilly] would have to keep the insulin prices up as they are tied to shareholder performance. People are not a factor, and the tension occurs when these anonymous accounts remind the world they should be.”

I met Denise Paolucci on Twitter and her tweet antagonizing Galloway’s call for transparency got my attention. Paolucci has been working in social media Trust & Safety, privacy, and user advocacy for long enough that she remembers before it was called “social media”. She doesn’t know of any critic of online verification and identification proposals who wouldn’t agree there will be times when verification of an identity is a critical necessity. News organizations, she illustrates, will always comply with the proper due diligence before publishing. Social media is, however, a different beast. Paolucci argues that social media has democratised communication more than ever before in history and this precipitates the need to teach people the forms of media literacy, traditionally outsourced to authors and journalists and this includes how to determine what you are reading, is in fact, real.

“Impersonation of both individuals and brands has been an issue communications platforms have had to deal with ever since they were invented. One of the landmark First Amendment cases in the US, Hustler v Falwell 485 U.S. 46 (1988) turns around the same concepts that social media Trust and Safety teams must deal with regularly: when is something parody, and when is it impersonation?”

She alleges there is no clear legal test nor exact definitions a platform can adopt. Every platform must make their own rules and communicate their rules clearly and consistently. However, Paolucci declares this Eli Lilly case isn’t an example of anonymity or verification failure…

“It’s an example of what happens when a platform creates those rules, which their users rely on for a decade, and then the platform changes the rules without notice. Twitter’s previous verification system was an example of how you can preserve the right to anonymity while still allowing Twitter to signal that they’d performed an identity verification for the people and brands, for whom anonymity is a downside and impersonation can be a crucial problem. The real issue is that they changed it without warning.”

While far from perfect, before the rules changed, Paolucci claimed Twitter’s system was a compromise to protect both sides of the anonymity debate that people came to rely on. The rush of brand impersonation accounts is an example of what happens when you make the rapid changes to a verification signal, and not an example of why all accounts needs to be verified.

Will People Paid to be Verified?

The response from our pundits to this question came with conditions. Danielle Citron, who previously ran the Trust and Safety Council at Twitter told Musk:

“I think a great many people here would pay for the service, verified or not, if you ensured that they could actually express themselves free from threats, intimate privacy violations, cyber mob attacks, stalking, and hate speech defined as the EU does as speech targeting a group and demeaning, denigrating, shaming, or threatening them because of their membership in a historically vulnerable group… Just saying I support a subscription model that keeps in place all safety measures and continues to evolve to tackle new threats. Not bespoke safety, wholesale safety.”

Under these circumstances the answer would be an emphatic yes, however, we must remember that this decision followed the widespread exodus of many advertisers amid brand safety concerns. Musk’s motivation to generate alternative revenue streams was a priority, but whether he would heed Citron’s conditions was unlikely.

Doctor was leery these promises would come to fruition, therefore charged this as a moot point. “The very function of a paywall creates a barrier to the people who ultimately make a place like Twitter useful – the wretched of the earth, so to speak, who don’t get a public platform but often have the most wisdom to share. These are contradictions by the very nature of how marginalized people use the platform to speak truth to power.”

The ideals that Citron expressed are things to strive for, but Doctor is skeptical they are still based in a certain context rooted in injustice. “Who does the work to moderate these ideals? If it’s the marginalized… and already oppressed who work to keep a safe space for the privileged feel safe then what are we really doing here other than keeping the “jungle from invading the “garden? Isn’t that colonialism 101? Content moderation is a labour issue as much as it is a user safety issue. Safety always comes at a cost, so we must ask who pays it at the end of the day? Put simply, safety for who exactly?”

Doctor’s comments address the wider systemic issues that persist in a white-dominant culture where policy and solutions have created norms and systems that have largely benefitted one group above others. It’s the same system that perpetuates in defining rules in technology.

Musks’ disturbing antics to kick doxxers off on his platform recently surfaced the suspension of prominent journalists on Twitter. If the Chief Twit, in his formed bias, gets to make the rules to define what “doxxing” encapsulates, then to Doctor’s point, does he also define “who is a cyber mob vs a collective movement fighting for justice? Who gets to determine what’s a threat? The values that one man holds will ultimately determine the outcome of these definitions and policies, however where then are the limitations of this rhetoric?”

“In other words, paying to ensure a safe platform is a false premise and it’s a distraction from the more serious issues at hand. Paying for ‘safety without carefully analyzing whose safety is ‘ensured’ gives a space for further injustice to thrive.”

Dominic Madori-Davis is a reporter with Tech Crunch and already has a “verified” (legitimate unpaid) account on the platform. This hasn’t changed her experience on Twitter, nor has it made her feel safe.

“I have a checkmark now and many people I know do as well. The service has not, in any way, deterred threats, privacy violations, stalking, mob attacks, and especially not hate speech. If anything, it has helped exacerbate and amplify these situations as people sought to stick to what they though was ‘the man.’ If there was a way to guarantee safety online, the idea that people must pay for it seems ethically and morally wrong. To live safely and peacefully, to have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should be a human right – not a bonus feature one must pay for to get through this increased monetization period of human life!”

Madori-Davis agrees with Doctor when it concerns who shapes these directives: “The idea of who should have the freedom to express themselves and remain safe is still under debate”. The country, its leaders, its mission, purpose and morals are too divided for any definition of the right to freely express to encompass everyone. Historically, this has not been the case.”

Dubiniecki, a Data Privacy Specialist, who helps startups navigate the regulatory terrain of the GDPR, would absolutely donate to a technology designed for humans and respects them as subjects, not to be mined and exploited.

“We shouldn’t have to pay for basic freedoms and privacy. That the norm for social media is data exploitation, corporate surveillance and attention manipulation is a viable and legitimate business model is a problem. People used to pay for these things, but Big Tech deceived them into believing that ‘free’ meant freedom. However, the social cost of the surveillance economy is one we, as a society, cannot afford.”

Paolucci, founder of Dreamwidth Studios, a user-supported, advertising-free platform, took a different perspective to this question. She argued Citron’s statement conflates verification and abuse prevention. She illustrates that to be ‘known’ doesn’t necessarily lessen abusive behaviour.

“If verifying someone’s identity worked to prevent abuse, sites that required people to post under their “real” names (which many privacy advocates call “wallet names”, as in the name that appears on your government-issued ID in your wallet, which don’t reflect any of the many circumstances in which the name someone is commonly known by doesn’t reflect the name that appears on their government ID) we would see a marked reduction in abusive behaviour on platforms that required people to use their wallet name, such as Facebook, Nextdoor, and the late Google+. On the contrary, those platforms experience just the same level of abusive behaviour as platforms that don’t require wallet names, if not greater. We saw during the January 6 insurrection that hundreds of people are happy to live-stream their attempt to overthrow the government under their wallet names.”

In fact, a recent study Paolucci references, looked at the Huffington post comments comments section through different phases of ID verification and how these changes impacted the discussion. “Like many other studies, they found that stable pseudonymity, in which people can identify themselves however they’d like but their pseudonym persists from comment to comment, was the configuration that experienced the least abuse.

Paolucci argues that requiring identity verification silences the people for whom their offline identity is at risk of being discoverable (via a subpoena to the service or which they’re participating). Similar to Doctor’s perspective, “Marginalized people, government dissidents, whistleblowers, undocumented immigrants and activists — among many others — are all harmed by a “real name” policy and won’t participate on a service that requires verification. A verification database is also a prime target for hackers and massively increases the amount of damage a data breach can cause.

While she argues that people are looking for a platform where they feel safe, “whatever their personal definition of safety means”, ID verification will do nothing to advance these goals. Paolucci maintains that abuse prevention through content moderation, privacy and security features should be the core of the product and offered to everyone using the product – paid or unpaid.

Young remembers Google’s push, over 6 years ago, with the launch of Google +,for people to use “real names” as their public handlesThe idea that a person’s ‘online’ name isn’t ‘real’, Young argues, is also a smokescreen: “A name you are known by is real because it identifies you in a certain context. Google eventually lifted the restriction to use real names, eventually realizing the impact on marginalized.”

What Young and Paolucci have established is the right of everyone to have and maintain online identities that may not necessarily surface their “wallet” or real-world identities.

Stay tune for Part 2 of this article: Will the Future of Social Media Mean the Coexistence of Safety and Identity?

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here.
Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/hessiejones/2023/01/01/social-media-the-paradoxical-freedom-of-speech-and-our-increasingly-defenseless-identities/?sh=3cf20d626887

 

 

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