How Algorithms and Corporations Are Threatening Free Discourse

When it comes to human affairs, it has been presumed that the state is the enforcer of the rules of society through laws. In the democratic system that has been operating in America for over 200+ years, lawmakers and judicial officials have been in a tug-of-war over how far to encroach on individuals’ rights. Debates about free speech, fair trials, and rights that are not otherwise specified would take place over a public trial and the conclusion would be reached by way of the American legal system. Today, a new authority has arisen whose decisions affect what we say publicly and the discourse we have with others. Technology companies of Google, Facebook, YouTube, etc. have gained immense power in a short amount of time and have complete rule in an area where people spend a considerable amount of time; they have become the de facto platforms for public discussion.

There is a major consequence to moving debates out of the public square and into the virtual world. In exchange for being able to use their platform, we are forced to accept the terms and conditions of discourse that is allowed on the service. The corporation has complete authority of its given platform and can exercise their power however they see fit. Private companies do treat their users in a democratic manner and instead are much more autocratic. You do not have the same rights in a private jurisdiction as you do in a public space.

Content creators have experienced this dogmatic rule first-hand and have seen pitfalls of being at the whim of social media platforms. In September of 2016, over 1000 popular meme pages on Facebook called the Meme Alliance decided to take a stand. They staged a Zuxit and did not post content for three days to bring awareness to the unfair and inconsistent censorship practices of the social media site. Facebook relies on algorithms to detect “hate speech” and “inappropriate content” to enforce their policies, which can result in a ban for the page administrator. What is most disturbing is that the Meme Alliance insists that, not only do Facebook pages have to worry about getting zucc’d, but regular users who just happen to say something controversial should be concerned too. The problem that Facebook faces is that they have replaced fair trial by jury (which used to exist in the public sphere IRL) with code which arbitrarily decides if you have broken the site’s terms or not. This has proved to be terribly inefficient.

More recently, YouTube has been pressured to crack down on its content creators after a Wall Street Journal hit piece went after PewDiePie over his “anti-semitic” content and completely ignored the context of his jokes. Although their article was received negatively by the public, it did not stop a barrage of headlines that assaulted the platform. “Big brands fund terror through online adverts,” reads The Times of London. The Verge writes, “When your child’s favorite YouTube celebrity is a secret racist.” These headlines are misleading because only a tiny fraction of Google’s ads are misplaced and people know that these brands do not control where these ads are misplaced. Nevertheless, over 250 brands such as L’oreal, McDonald’s, Audi, and more have dropped their campaigns from YouTube. As a response, Google and YouTube to use artificial intelligence to combat against controversial content and the early stages of this have turned out to be a disaster. YouTube’s restricted mode has caused an uproar in the LGBTQ community by censoring their content from searches. Furthermore, Google has demonetized numerous videos as a result of the corporate boycott resulting in the loss of revenue for YouTubers.

In the case of YouTube, we see content creators being attacked by private corporations on two fronts. The first is through the restricted mode, which, similar to Facebook algorithms, prevents creators from reaching audiences. The second is through a monetary offensive from large corporations who feel threatened by the growing popularity of independent media. And they have good reason to be: younger viewers find independent content creators from YouTube more entertaining and relatable than their television counterparts. Traditional media is seeking to exploit the opportunity by starving Google and by default, YouTubers, of revenue so they can no longer operate and traditional media can take their place.

Google is the King of advertising: they offer clients access to wide audiences at the fraction of the cost. In 2017, Google is expected to have a third of the $220 billion international digital ad revenue market. Two notable conglomerates who have pulled their ads, AT&T and Verizon, have an incentive to do so. AT&T owns Time Warner, an expansive media conglomerate that owns HBO, TNT, TBS, CNN, and more, as well as being the world’s largest paid TV company after their merger with Direct TV. Meanwhile, Verizon recently purchased Yahoo! in order to compete in the digital space and also owns The Huffington Post.
It is hard to say what will happen in the future because it will all depend on what kind of direction Google and Facebook take. Although content creators basically give up their rights when using Google and Facebook, they always have the choice to leave. If Google and Facebook continue with their censorship and isolate their content creators, they will be the first to go to new platforms which could lead to a domino effect. and minds have been slowly emerging as formidable alternatives for video content. But, if they work with their content creators and find a solution for both free speech and profitability, then the end of traditional media’s sway on society may be sooner than we think.