Essay #1: Internet freedom?
In 2018 the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of Americans and found that 53% of their respondents got their news from internet sources in 2017 (PRC 2018), 20% from social media, and 33% from online news articles. In recent history, social media websites such as Facebook started to censor posts that they deemed to be “abusive”, with conservative news posts being left out from trending pages sorted by algorithms (The Guardian 2016).
In the early days of the popularization of social media as a news source, Twitter was hailed as the most efficient method of distributing news to the general population, with journalists relying on updates from regular people for content on live events and disasters. But today, we are censored by algorithms that former Facebook employees admit to being biased (The Guardian 2016). How can we trust what we see online? Are we all being groomed to think and act a specific way based on what we are told to read and listen to? Social media isn’t as democratic as we think, however, the internet as a whole is still free as long as we seek neutral sources of information and purposefully explore alternative opinions.
When we post online, usually we expect to have complete control over our content as an individual with freedom just as someone would expect when speaking in public. However, many posts can be subject to censorship or removal based on community guidelines set out by many sites. An example is Facebook. In their community standards they list that “The goal of our Community Standards has always been to create a place for expression and give people a voice” (Facebook n.d.) which also includes allowing for discussion on topics of controversial nature. Although even with this clearly within their community standards, many people have had their posts and links removed for allegedly violating these standards even if a majority of people feel like the posts are still reasonable. Facebook does this filtering both manually and by using algorithms to automatically filter out inappropriate posts. Where the true bias comes from is when a human is curating a specific news feed, like when The Guardian heard from a former employee at Facebook that an editor was choosing news articles to be listed on a trending page and was intentionally excluding any American conservative news despite Facebook’s claims that this was done by a computer (2016). Though, most people’s posts are not popular enough to be curated by a human, so most are moderated by a computer algorithm. The issue with this is that algorithms lack the ability to detect context or find the true meaning of any post. Jennifer Cobb wrote a paper titled Algorithmic Censorship by Social Platforms: Power and Resistance (2020) where she discusses the efficacy of algorithms used in social media for content filtering. She wrote that “according to Facebook, as of 2018, 99.5 per cent of removals of terrorist content, 96 per cent of removals of nudity and sexual content, and 86 per cent of removals of violent content were detected automatically, but just 38 per cent of removals of hate speech” which means that Facebook’s algorithm is quite effective, however, not completely effective at discerning context of speech to eliminate all hate speech. One solution to this could be that people could report posts to Facebook, but that would play into human bias once again.
Not only is Facebook’s algorithm not entirely effective, but it also makes mistakes. In 2015, an image was published online of a goose apparently on fire (Knowyourmeme 2015) though the image was actually of a goose running past a campfire. It appeared to be on fire because of the timing of the picture when it was taken. Facebook immediately flagged this image as inappropriate and still to this day censors all instances of this image as graphic content that violates community standards.
The question now is; how free is the internet? Can we post (legal content) freely without being censored? The short answer is yes. But we would have to create our own sites or go to truly neutral sites that moderate based on specific objective criteria. The fact is that sites like Facebook and Twitter are businesses and they have to at least attempt to prevent as many people from being turned away by intimidation or being offended by content on their site. The internet is truly free to use just as we speak publicly, though through the anonymity of the keyboard and screen, we get people who are more willing to type what they want, even if it may offend many people.
We all have the choice to use or not use specific websites, and there are surely many alternatives to any one popular social media site. We willingly consume content handed to us on Facebook, but that does not mean that we are being manipulated. We have true choice in what we do on the internet, just as I have freedom of choice to walk out of a shop when I want. Though we must abide by the rules of the business while we patron it.
Bowles, N., & Thielman, S. (2016, May 09). Facebook accused of censoring conservatives, report says. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/may/09/facebook-newsfeed-censor-conservative-news
Community Standards. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/communitystandards/
Goose on Fire / Fire Duck. (2015). Retrieved from https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/goose-on-fire-fire-duck
Jennifer Cobbe (2020) ‘Algorithmic Censorship by Social Platforms: Power and Resistance’, Philosophy & Technology
Shearer, E. (2018, December 10). Social media outpaces print newspapers in the U.S. as a news source. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/10/social-media-outpaces-print-newspapers-in-the-u-s-as-a-news-source/