Public dialogue is experiencing a shift in how it is regulated due to new and innovative channels for one to voice their opinions through. Freedom of speech and access to public discussion are becoming more privately and corporately controller, rather than governmentally facilitated. With social media platforms dictating and serving as residence to where most of the public discourse occurs, these private companies are essentially given the power to choose what is allowed on their platforms, how it is regulated, and who gets to say what through their terms of service. This can become quite a daunting thought given that these terms of service do not need to abide by constitutional rights of freedom of speech. Due to this, companies such as Twitter and Facebook are given the ability to censor and promote their own political biases through account suspensions and shadowbanning, as well as dictating the quality of discussion through communicational affordances.
Bias is becoming more and more prevalent in mainstream media and broadcasting. Especially in America, one can usually pin which point on the partisan spectrum a media outlet resides. This has become increasingly noticeable among viewers, and the type and presentation of news stories is usually an accurate representation of their political standings. Social media has recently been under blast for promoting these same types of biases. A poll in June 2018 discovered that 72% of Americans believe social media companies censor views they don’t like or agree with. (Hanania, 2019) Twitter has been under skepticism for exhibiting their own political biases through account suspensions and shadowbanning. A short study was conducted by Richard Hanania of 22 banned accounts on twitter beginning from 2015. These 22 accounts had to be easily identifiable as Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump supporters, and the suspensions had to be big enough to warrant mainstream media coverage. The accounts were also prominent individuals or political party members with big followings and influence. Of these 22 accounts, Hanania found that 21 were supporters of Donald Trump and one was a supporter of Hillary Clinton. (Hanania, 2019) This is quite a small sample size, and one could conclude that this just means Trump supporters are more likely to break neutral terms of service; however, accounting for random error, this would mean Trump supporters are four times more likely than Hillary supporters to do so which doesn’t seem credible. (Hanania, 2019) Furthermore, there are cases of Liberal leaning or left-winged users not being suspended or punished at all even though they have broken neutral terms of service. An example of this is Kathy Griffin demanding “that her followers make public names of the Covington High School students who were falsely accused of aggressively harassing a Native American activist. Despite this explicit call to harass minors, she has not been sanctioned by Twitter.” (Hanania, 2019) Twitter playing favourites may not always be so obvious though. Shadowbanning is another practice that isn’t so black and white in identifying. “Shadowbanned users are not told that they have been affected. They can continue to post messages, add new followers, and comment on or reply to other posts. But their messages may not appear in the feed, their replies may be suppressed, and they may not show up in searches for their usernames.” (The Economist, 2018) Evidence of this was a case that Vice News reported on. They observed that prominent conservatives and right-wing figures in America, such as the chair of the Republic National Committee, did not appear when one searched for them. (The Economist, 2018) Shadowbanning is a very dangerous form of manipulation that can have significant impacts on peoples’ ideas due to a silent control and containment of information. These social media outlets also have massive influence on elections as they can choose who they want to be most heard and who they want silenced. The fact that media companies who control large spaces where most public dialogue occurs and don’t have to abide by constitutional definitions of freedom of speech can affect how democratic these discussions really are. Dialogue between opposing views becomes scarcer, and people are exposed to only one viewpoint rather than multiple perspectives. Even if dialogue is struck up, it can tend to lack in quality or seriousness. Especially on Twitter where the amount one can type and post is limited, the question on affordances impacting this discussion is important to analyze. Anonymity is an affordance that can often negatively affect public discourse. (Jaidka, Zhou, & Lelkes, 2018) This is because the users do not have any real-life attachment to the messages they are sending, and they don’t fear for any repercussions to their own personal lives. “When acting out hostile feelings, the person doesn’t have to take responsibility for those actions. In fact, people might even convince themselves that those behaviours ‘aren’t me at all.’” (Suler, 2015) Another affordance is how much or little one can send or include in one post. A study of over three hundred and fifty thousand tweets involving politics sent before and after Twitter increased their characters per tweet allowance from 140 to 280, found that this character limit increase affected some message features which improved the quality of these political discussions. (Jaidka, Zhou, & Lelkes, 2018) These are important to factor into what facilitates democratic and meaningful discussions. These social media companies should be testing the effects of certain affordances and use a combination of them which leads to the highest quality of discussion. Twitter increasing their character limit is a strong sign of their ability to adapt certain affordances to achieve a higher level of dialogue on their platform. If more of these adaptations are implemented throughout the realm of social media, then discussion may not only be more democratic, but also more purposeful.
Overall, the shift in how public dialogue is regulated is an issue that needs to be thoroughly addressed. Private companies being able to dictate the direction of this dialogue through bias and shadowbanning can lead to major communicational and informational droughts within the communities that utilise these platforms. To keep discussions democratic and balanced, all sources of information must be equally available and accessible. Allowing this freedom to all views rather than catering to one perspective can give every person, idea, and ideology the same chance to be heard, considered, and discussed. Furthermore, more social media companies should be crafting their platforms to provide the most optimal combination of affordances that best serve their audience. Equipping users with the most considerate affordances can further enhance discussions by improving the quality of information flow as well as leading to less trolling and/or meaningless dialogue. By carefully evaluating these two considerations, social media platforms can greatly enhance the diversity, democratic-nature, and quality of these discussion, contributing to a more healthy and purposeful dialogue among the public masses.
Hanania, R. (2019). It Isn’t Your Imagination: Twitter Treats Conservatives More Harshly Than Liberals. Quillette, 1-6.
Jaidka, K., Zhou, A., & Lelkes, Y. (2018). Brevity Is the Soul of Twitter: The Constraint Affordance and Political Discussion. SSRN, 1-49.
Suler, J. (2015). The Online Disinhibition Effect. In J. Suler, Psychology of the Digital Age (pp. 321-326). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The Economist. (2018). What is “shadowbanning”? The Economist, 1-2.