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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: Consequence time

by Brenda Looper | January 20, 2021 at 3:59 a.m.
Brenda Looper

Technology helps us with so much, especially during a pandemic. It enables some of us to work from home when needed. It lets us see and talk to friends and family we've not been able to see in person for a long while. It allows us to share in the experience of (hopefully peaceful) government transition.

It also lets us oversleep when a phone system update overrides the alarm, dang it. On the bright side, I did need the sleep.

We've seen plenty of the light side of technology over the past many years, but over the past year, especially, we've seen much more of the dark side.

Darth Vader would be proud ... and probably a little frightened as well.

Over the past several years, as some of Big Tech decided (belatedly and inconsistently) to enforce terms of service, some of those suspended and/or banned altogether have grumbled, "Censorship!" But it's consequences, not censorship.

When you use the platform of a private company, you agree to the terms of service, and one of the consequences for flouting them is to lose usage of that platform. You can always go to another platform, where you'll have to agree to its terms of service, knowing that if you violate them, you can lose the privilege of using that platform as well. You can also build your own platform, but you'll have to find someone to host it unless you have the wherewithal to do that yourself, and again, you'll have to agree to terms of service.

It's almost like they expect you to follow rules, just like everyone else. I know, right? (But yeah, it would help if they were applied consistently. For the average citizen to get suspended, it doesn't take a lot, but for a public figure ... )

It's here that I should remind you that posting to social media is a privilege, not a right. As private companies publish the social media platforms, they are well within their rights to refuse service to anyone. I should also remind you that none of the amendments to the Constitution are absolute (yes, that includes the Second), and no one is required to give you use of their platform for your exercise of your rights.

Which is why the lede in a weekend story in The Washington Post hit so hard: "Online misinformation about election fraud plunged 73 percent after several social media sites suspended President Trump and key allies last week, research firm Zignal Labs has found, underscoring the power of tech companies to limit the falsehoods poisoning public debate when they act aggressively."

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg reported: "Election disinformation had for months been a major subject of online misinformation, beginning even before the Nov. 3 election and pushed heavily by Trump and his allies." Zignal found a steep drop on Twitter and other platforms after Twitter's Jan. 8 ban started, which came about as a consequence of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

It does make a difference, then, when the megaphone is taken away from the people screaming conspiracy theories on the street corner. They're still yelling, which is their right as long as they don't incite violence or slander anyone, but they're no longer amplified, and thus easier to ignore.

The research from Zignal and others, The Post reported, suggests "that a powerful, integrated disinformation ecosystem--composed of high-profile influencers, rank-and-file followers and Trump himself--was central to pushing millions of Americans to reject the election results and may have trouble surviving without his social media accounts." However, just like with fact-checks, de-platforming can harden the views of those who believe disinformation. And even those who aren't de-platformed have often created social media bubbles where they don't have to be exposed to anything that might puncture their beliefs. Woo hoo.

Some social media users are doing as my oldest brother has done, and are refusing to respond to political posts; I agree in a way because foaming at the mouth isn't a good look, but the loss of pushback on blatantly false posts troubles me. Others are taking a break from social media altogether, some because they're exhausted by all the fighting, which appears to be the only reason some people (badly in need of a hobby) are on social media.

I have noticed less disinformation in my Facebook news feed (which means those who have posted it get my full attention in posting fact-checks). I've also noticed several people opine that they need a platform that believes in free speech so they can say whatever they want without penalty.

So let's go over this again. You have the right to free speech, with limits. Those who own the platforms have the right to create rules by which you must abide in order to use their platforms. You don't have a right to post online using someone else's platform, but rather a privilege, and privileges that are abused can be easily lost.

As your mama probably said when you were a kid, play nice. If you can't, there will be time in the corner and you won't be able to play with your friends ... if you have any left.

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Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com. Email her at blooper@adgnewsroom.com.

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