Internet and moderation

A recent research paper concluded that American Twitter users are adding political words to their bios at a higher rate than any other social identity and that they are now more likely to describe themselves by their political affiliation than their religious affiliation.

This could be true for India too, I reckon, going by the number of Twitter users (as also other platforms) who use one or more markers to highlight their political affiliation and religious affiliation in India.

At one point (or, in the early years), the internet used to be the place where you showcased your identity as a ‘pluviophile’ (someone who loves rains), or as a fan of an actor, kind of movies/books, and so on. From those interests, we are at a stage where our primary identity is defined by which political party we support and which religion we belong to/identify with. We may not wear the party’s or religious t-shirt while heading to a mall (in India, that’s still a possibility, though), but we seem to be gladly advertising it as our primary identity online!

A potential offshoot of such vocal and direct demonstrations of our primary identity is increasingly polarized behaviors online, in our conversations and the content we share.

Such polarized behaviors are leading to a massive upheaval of the internet business in general where platforms that used to moderate content on the basis of legal guidelines and taste (abuse, among other far worse things) are now finding that their very existence is being defined by what they moderate and how they do it.

Consider the latest Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code of 2021 (PDF) announced recently by the Indian Government.

Under the rules, a ‘significant publisher of news and current affairs’ is one that
(a) publishes news and current affairs content as a systematic business activity;
(b) operates in the territory of India;
(c) has not less than five lakh subscribers, or fifty lakh followers (or 5 million followers) on the services of any significant social media intermediary, as the case may be.

What is a ‘significant social media intermediary’? Social media companies with more than 50 lakh registered users (5 million) will be considered ‘significant social media intermediaries’, as per the same guidelines.

So, let’s consider a social media influencer with 5 million followers on say, Instagram and Twitter. They may share ‘news’ about select areas of interest because of which they became top-level influencers. Considering that the ‘news’ about their industry is their ‘systematic business activity’ (because of which brands engage them professionally for a fee), would they be seen either as a ‘significant publisher of news and current affairs’ or a ‘significant social media intermediary’?

I don’t know, but it looks like a potentially open area should the possibility be explored in the near future taking the rules at face value.

What are the responsibilities of a ‘significant publisher of news and current affairs’ or a ‘significant social media intermediary’?

Oh, the list is quite long. Here’s the snapshot from the new IT Rules.

Bottomline? Mandatory content moderation falls upon the intermediary. We think of intermediaries as ‘companies’ (Facebook, Google etc.) but while those companies are increasingly under pressure all around the world to moderate more and more, given how individuals hold power in the form of massive follower-base on the intermediaries, it may soon become imperative that individuals could fall under ‘intermediaries’ too even if they too are simply using the services of another intermediary.

Far-fetched? Just look at what happened to Donald Trump. Platforms were, eventually forced to not just moderate his content (which they scrambled to, from time to time), but to moderate the individual himself!

Even a gaming-focused messaging platform like Discord (that Microsoft is showing interest in buying, recently) has a team of machine-learning engineers who are working on systems and processes to scan the platform’s messages for unacceptable uses – the service has even allocated 15% of its overall staff on such moderation! If they don’t, their very existence would be in question, at least as per the Indian IT Rules 2021.

Going beyond social media platforms, if you take the IT Rules that are more directed towards ‘news’ organizations, consider the precedent from Malaysia: in February this year, a Malaysian Court found a news portal guilty over readers’ comments! This is the end result of what the Indian IT Rules too dictate in terms of guidelines – that the news platform is responsible for users’ comments too, even as social media platforms were free from this possibility so far.

Why is the rule like this for ‘news’ organizations and not for social media platforms (which the Indian IT Rules are aiming to change)?

That is because of “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet” – this is the actual title of a book by Jeff Kosseff. Those 26-words are,
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider“, from Section 230, a piece of Internet legislation in the United States, passed into law as part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

We generally think of social media platforms for ‘interactive computer service’, but consider how even platforms like Yelp or a Zomato, which invite users to contribute, focus on content moderation.

OYO took this moderation into a full-fledged campaign, more than simply doing it behind the scenes, for Women’s Day 2021!

We, as a species, are perhaps only scratching the surface when it comes to the perils of internet speech.

I use ‘internet speech’ in the literal sense too – content moderation is a massive concern even for podcasts, the new darling of the internet these days.

I presume that things are going to go far, far worse, and ugly, more and more Governments are going to try their best to reign on the internet and increase moderation while extending their own agendas to curb free speech on the side.

The very nature of the internet, as we know it today, will probably cease to exist a few years from now. It may have morphed into something very different. Consider this possibility: anything you post online need not go live immediately – it may be kept in abeyance till either algorithms/AI or human moderators have had the chance to check it first!

Take the example of the New York Times’ cooking group on Facebook. It had over 77,000 passionate members. The rules we simple – talk about food.

But, eventually, when someone did, someone else took offence to it and things went haywire very soon, on a daily basis. And there was a LOT of politics in the messages/comments too! On a Group about food! Result? The New York Times is abandoning the group entirely!

During the year-end holidays last year, the Group admin posted this message:

This did not mean, “You folks can post whatever you want when our moderators are on a break”. This meant they were shutting all activity in the Group till the moderators are back!

Cover picture courtesy: AInews.

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