Moderating Content and Freedom of Speech

graffiti wall

Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

The social media platforms are finally turning off the opportunities for President Trump and many others to pump out misinformation and foment violence. Twitter and Facebook get the most attention because of their audience sizes, but there are lots of other places less obvious for those conversations and misinformation disguised as truthful information.

The right-wing app Parler has been booted off the Internet over ties to the siege on the U.S. Capitol. As the AP reported, "...but not before digital activists made off with an archive of its posts, including any that might have helped organize or document the riot. Amazon kicked Parler off its web-hosting service, and the social media app promptly sued to get back online, telling a federal judge that the tech giant had breached its contract and abused its market power. It was a roller coaster of activity for Parler, a 2-year-old magnet for the far right that welcomed a surge of new users. It became the No. 1 free app on iPhones late last week after Facebook, Twitter and other mainstream social media platforms silenced President Donald Trump’s accounts over comments that seemed to incite Wednesday’s violent insurrection."

Is that an attack on freedom of speech?

As Amber MacArthur wrote recently in her newsletter, "It's easy to say that moderating content is an attack on freedom of speech, but many fail to realize that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. Moreover, private businesses do have the right to set their own rules of engagement, which in the case of social media platforms is often outlined in their Terms of Service."

Germany - which has tighter controls on hate speech than the U.S. - nevertheless had Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that Trump’s eviction from Twitter by the company is “problematic.” Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, sent a kind of mixed message saying that operators of social media platforms “bear great responsibility for political communication not being poisoned by hatred, by lies and by incitement to violence” but also that the freedom of opinion is a fundamental right of “elementary significance” and that “This fundamental right can be intervened in, but according to the law and within the framework defined by legislators — not according to a decision by the management of social media platforms. Seen from this angle, the chancellor considers it problematic that the accounts of the U.S. president have now been permanently blocked.”

Opinions in America are probably also pro and con with people on either side and some who are partially on both sides, like Merkel's opinion.

 Jillian C. York says "Users, not tech executives, should decide what constitutes free speech online. Social media companies aren’t very good at moderating speech. So why do we ask them to?" She continues: "...While some pundits have called the decision unprecedented—or “a turning point for the battle for control over digital speech,” as Edward Snowden tweeted —it’s not: not at all. Not only do Twitter and Facebook regularly remove all types of protected expression, but Trump’s case isn’t even the first time the platforms have removed a major political figure. Following reports of genocide in Myanmar, Facebook banned the country’s top general and other military leaders who were using the platform to foment hate. The company also bans Hezbollah from its platform because of its status as a US-designated foreign terror organization, despite the fact that the party holds seats in Lebanon’s parliament. And it bans leaders in countries under US sanctions."

I think Snowden's sense of a turning point is correct, but it's not clear into which direction we will be turning.


Gazing Back Into the Social Media Crystal Ball

crystal ballWhile lots of people online are making predictions about all kinds of things for the year ahead, I like to look back at the predictions that were made for the year that is ending. Did anyone get it right?

Clearly, the pandemic wasn’t on anyone’s radar in December 2019 although the first signs of it in China were starting to emerge then. That is the story of the year and it is hard to find any industry or sector that wasn’t affected by it.

I’m just looking here at social media which played a large role in not only the pandemic but also in the American Presidential election.

Social media has moved in the same way that the Internet itself has moved – from a social sharing place to a marketplace. Whether you are selling CBD oil or a candidate, social media (SM) is part of your strategy.

One prediction was that Facebook and other SM would get more expensive in 2020 was a safe bet. But the bigger story was the pressure on the big platforms (but especially Facebook) to control fake accounts, posts, news and its promotion.

Things still went viral but some controls were put in place, though more is needed. AI is playing a bigger role but human intervention and monitoring are still needed.

In January 2020, I read that worldwide there were 3.80 billion social media users. That was about a 9 percent increase (321 million new users) from the previous year. Globally, more than 5.19 billion people now use mobile phones, with user numbers up by 124 million (2.4 percent) over the past year.

Listing the top SM sites early in the year as (in order) Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Pinterest. and Snapchat, is a numbers game and those rankings varied a bit throughout the year as earnings were reported to stockholders based on users and user growth.

I don’t see LinkedIn listed there but it certainly has a place in the more serious and business-oriented side of SM. LinkedIn advertising costs took a jump up in cost per click (CPC) when the platform released objective-based advertising back in early 2019. All the platforms have had to do similar things and Facebook was both publically called out for its ability to target ads very specifically and privately by marketers praised and

Another prediction was a further increase in using high-value video content. Facebook, IGTV and YouTube content in social marketing and the more subtle simple sharing of content certainly increased.

A much longer list (75 SM sites) might include some that you have never used or heard of and perhaps don’t even think of as SM, such as GoodReads, Flickr, Twitch, or ones that are foreign, like Skyrock in France.

And, of course, predictions for 2021…  like these from

Crossposted at Ronkowitz LLC

Facebook Data Goes to Researchers

Facebook dataResearchers expected it a year and a half ago, but Facebook is finally giving researchers access to a lot of data. The data is about how users have shared information, including misinformation, about political events around the world.

The data released last month relates to URLs (38 million) that users shared publicly on Facebook between January 2017 and July 2019. Did they consider a linked site to be fake news or hate speech? Which links did they click or like or share?

Social scientists will also be able to connect that with some demographic information like age, gender, and location and political affinities. There are also concerns that there are distortions, or noise, that have been injected into the data. Why? Thankfully, because of differential privacy by data managers who have tried to ensure privacy.

This seems to echo the last U.S. Presidential election in 2016 when Facebook was hit with evidence that it had given political operatives unauthorized use of its data. In April 2018, they announced that they would turn over full access to information about its users with no strings attached - but to researchers.

It's the right thing to do but a tough thing for a company to do - turning over proprietary information. Previously, that data was only available for research that was either conducted in-house or required preapproval from Facebook.

Social Listening in Higher Education

social media sitesSocial listening (or social media monitoring) is paying attention to  your brand's social media channels for:
- customer feedback
- direct mentions of your brand
- discussions regarding specific keywords, topics
- those same things in your competitors and industry

For higher education institutions, not doing social listening is the equivalent of not listening to students (both potential and active), faculty and staff comments about your school. Some people refer to this as "conversational research" because it is kind of like listening in on other people's conversations about you - which in real life is hard to resist.

Of course, monitoring alone isn't of much value if it is not followed by an analysis to gain insights that you can act on. Though a starting place can be a simple "vanity search" on the name of your school, most colleges are using social listening tools that can filter the data into more granular grouping conversations. That could be geographical locations, online channels (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums, etc.), positivity, recency, language, and by specific groups based on sex, age and many other demographics.

Social listening is also a more advanced form of market research that can identify opportunities for courses, majors and new content creation or the amplification of existing content.  For example, comparing the top topics from social listening results to the top topics from a content audit can aid marketers in identifying opportunities to create content that will resonate with their audience.

The search function on networks like Instagram allows for hashtags, so my university would monitor #NJIT, but would also follow #highered #engineering #architecture #STEM and other tags.

It is estimated that there are about 80 million online sources for mentions. Higher education conversations occur in places like news articles, review sites, Reddit, all the big social networks and also higher ed focused sites like College Confidential which is self-described as "The World's Largest College Forum."

Social listening data about peer institutions is "competitive intelligence" and considered to be "brand benchmarking." It is important for admissions marketing, but also for reputation management. This becomes critical such as when there is a campus crisis that requires an instantaneous response.