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I’m glad we’re discussing what can and cannot be said on social networks

The ongoing exclusion of Alex Jones and his InfoWars from most social platforms: YouTube, Facebook, iTunes, Spotify, MailChimp and Amazon’s product recommendations; along with Twitter’s decision, after intense internal debate, to keep his accounts open has sparked an interesting discussion about what should or should not be allowed on social media, with many people trying to convince Jack Dorsey that the issue is not about rules or deeds, but values.

Meanwhile, Alex Jones and his InfoWars have reached the peak of their popularity, with huge numbers of people downloading the app, which hasn’t been withdrawn from stores, and that now sits fourth in the rankings. In the medium term, eliminating or restricting accounts from the social networks may limit their scope and influence, but in the short term, there is no doubt that in the eyes of many, Jones is now the victim of a global conspiracy, giving him it much more importance than he merits, and further radicalizing his already radical followers.

That said, debate on the subject is a good thing: as Li Yuan, Asia correspondent of The New York Times, comments, this discussion would not be possible in countries like China. The best analysis I’ve read is by Jeff Jarvis, who says that social media platforms are not media as such, but represent something new we don’t properly understand and that if anything are closer to the idea of the agora, the public square, where debate takes place.

But the agora was subject to rules relating not just to education or decorum, and today we must must take into account other factors ranging from basic cultural or traditions to others that can be understood as intentional provocation. In addition, these rules evolve over time: discussions about the slave trade or universal suffrage, for example, were common a few decades ago, but no longer make sense and to revive them would be outside the rules, as is is now the case with gay marriage — although not in all countries. These changing rules are part of a social contract in permanent evolution with respect to an environment that is being modified in many cases due to the availability of technological tools.

Any popular platform or tool is subject to malicious use, whether by criminals or those trying to take advantage of the ignorance or naivety of its users. We have seen this with the social networks, with some people using various methods to make themselves appear more popular than they are, manipulating public opinion and taking advantage of the many people unable to understand that bot factories are behind new political movement or currents of opinion, with huge numbers of false accounts as part of a cleverly thought out strategy. Keeping the social networks free of this kind of activity is the responsibility of the companies involved, although the financial markets last week punished Twitter for doing eliminating fake accounts. If the task of cleaning up the social networks, now possible thanks to increasingly efficient tools, is to be hampered by the stupidity and incomprehension of analysts unable to see beyond the numbers, then companies like Twitter will have little incentive to continue doing so.

Beyond the issue of cleaning up the social networks we need to discuss the rules of behavior on the social networks. However many rules we come up with to prevent insults or threats, by now it should be clear that it is very difficult to establish exactly what constitutes harassment or bullying, which can be accomplished without the need for insults or direct threats. At the same time, it should also be clear that the limits of reasonable behavior are constantly being pushed, meaning that what was once considered unacceptable is now acceptable. This is a debate taking place not just on the social networks but everywhere in society, particularly regarding the behavior of public figures.

Should we allow discussion that questions issues society has consigned to the past, or considers beyond discussion? When somebody uses social networks to try to deny the holocaust, to defend racism, to encourage discrimination or to question fundamental rights, are they really interested in debate or simply trying to attract attention, often for financial motives? Should we really allow yet another imbecile to say that the moon landing was faked, that vaccination kills and that Hitler wasn’t such a bad guy, or do we want mechanisms to isolate and eliminate that kind of behavior? Is a society that prevents or isolates certain debate or argument any less free when those same issues are no longer debated in wider society? Or is limiting debate that questions liberal values the same as China, Russia, Iran or Turkey, where the authorities decide what can and cannot be discussed?

I believe this is a conversation we need to have, and that we should be proud we are able to have it. Democracy is not perfect and it’s a good thing we’re working on improving it, we should not be envious of authoritarian regimes; it’s the same with the discussion on freedom of expression. There is no room in this discussion for extremist positions: freedom of expression does not mean being able to shout “fire!” In a theater full of people, nor does it imply that those who abuse it are free from criticism from those who opposed to being able to say certain things. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of a discussion that needs to be taken to the next level.


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