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A clash between empires

by on March 29, 2021

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Nation state vs Network state

Watching the big tech executives face off against a range of Congressional officials was an exercise in (mediocre) surrealist theatre, and a reflection of two regimes, one in decline, and the other on the rise.

The Nation state struggles to figure out how to regulate and restrain the rising social media platforms, who are increasingly behaving and appearing as if they themselves are governments. These fledging Network states are coming into their own, and each confrontation they have with governments strengthens their position.

In arguing that these sorts of hearings are theatre, does not necessarily dismiss their influence or significance. Royal courts were theatre, and yet this theatre was a crucial element of the politics and power games that take place in an empire.

Similarly this latest hearing was conducted online, and it was the first since the failed insurrection in January. That the politicians looked bewildered and disheveled, in contrast to the much sharper images and performances of the tech executives was notable.

What happened to the industry of political communication experts? Were they sidelines by the pandemic and not able to instruct their politician clients as to how to stream online in 2021?

Can someone not teach these politicians how to look good in an online meeting? Maybe use a teleprompter app instead of reading off of paper sitting in your lap?

Although this latest hearing was a huge improvement from the first round of questions we saw almost two years ago. The politicians are definitely figuring out how these platforms work, even if that remains at a rudimentary level.

However the arrogance on all sides is discouraging. Like rulers of regimes they want to convey confidence and certainty. They understand the problem. They’re working on the solution.

Yet from where we’re sitting, it appears as if nobody has a clue. As if the whole thing is just a mess, and nobody wants to admit they don’t know what to do about it. Or rather they don’t know that they don’t know and are unable to admit that to themselves.

Take for example Facebook’s belief that their content oversight group can bail them out from being responsible for what they moderate and what they don’t.

Two months since a group of outside experts started ruling on what people could post on Facebook, cracks in the so-called Oversight Board are already starting to show.

So far, the independent body of human rights experts, free speech supporters and legal scholars that rules on what content Facebook must take down or put back up has reversed the social media giant’s decisions in four out of its first five cases. The biggest test is yet to come: deciding whether or not to reinstate former U.S. President Donald Trump’s account after it was blocked for inciting violence around the Capitol Hill riots in January.

These initial decisions — the Trump announcement is expected by mid-April, at the earliest — highlight the unwieldy job that the Oversight Board has on its hands: to create a single set of free speech standards that apply to posts from around the world.

The primary job is not so much creating standards as it is providing cover for Facebook along with the (false) perception of legitimacy.

Critics say it acts too harshly in some cases or gives a free pass to content that many find offensive in others. That tension goes to a central problem underlying the Oversight Board’s work: establishing a one-size-fits-all approach to content moderation by applying global free speech norms when Facebook posts are rooted in local cultures.

“The Board is applying international human rights law to Facebook as if it was a country. That’s impossible,” Evelyn Douek, an online free speech expert at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, told Digital Bridge, POLITICO’s transatlantic tech newsletter.

Impossible, or aspirational? Facebook is developing the trappings and features of a government, albeit not a national one.

The company achieved scale through automation, or at least the myth of it. Providing a platform for millions and now billions of people to publish was only possible because of a (near holy) belief in automated moderation and algorithmic filtering.

Yet once that scaled exists, there’s now way automation can manage this sprawling empire. Instead Facebook has hired thousands upon thousands of people to throw at the problem. Without wondering if the problem could be solved or if Facebook wants to solve it.

While there may be flaws in the democratic structures of the US Government, at least it has democratic structures or at the very least democratic elements. Facebook has none of that. It’s a tyranny in denial. An empire full of well meaning people who have no power to make any difference whatsoever.

Ultimately Facebook is not a great example of a network state, just a powerful one.

Twitter meanwhile, as we’ve discussed this week, is motivated to try something different.

At the Congressional hearing, Dorsey was the most defiant. Perhaps also the most honest. Of all the companies present, Twitter seems most determined to do what it feels it must do, no matter the cost.

Facebook and Google make overtures of their concessions, empty promises of future deals, and do their best to resemble responsible citizens, even as their power grows exponentially.

Twitter on the other hand does little to hide its ambitions, although the chances of it succeeding are relatively small and as a result few take them seriously. Yet perhaps we should. If only because their vision of a Network state is more honest and open than the rest.

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