Bias on social media has become a highly politicized topic in the US—started mainly by right-wingers crying foul at having their accounts suspended or banned, and snowballing in a series of congressional hearings on the subject. The White House itself spun up a website last week for people to report incidents of censorship due to political beliefs.
We can argue as to whether the fears of the Trump administration or its various howling Twitter goons are grounded in reality (many have), but the fact is: social media platforms are lousy arbiters of speech. Their rules tend to be opaque and their enforcement is capricious. At least, that’s what a newly-launched project from the Electronic Frontier Foundation contends.
TOSsed Out (a play on “Terms of Service”) seeks to highlight how censorship and deplatforming online “disproportionately impact[s] those with insufficient resources to easily move to other mediums to speak out.” Political speech may be the most buzzworthy incarnation of this issue, but it impacts everyone from educators to Twitter parodists, due either to incautious human moderators or dragnet algorithms tossing out accounts and content with an overly heavy hand. Among the case studies highlighted by the EFF are the Syrian Archives—a cache of human war crimes documentation which YouTube has repeatedly flagged, and Tumblr’s bumbling adult content filter which indiscriminately removed scads of content, much of which wasn’t sexually explicit at all.
“A lot of people think there’s an easy solution, and that the [solution is] for the platforms to ‘do something.’ Social media companies do not have a good history in this arena, and there are so many reasons not to trust these giant companies, why should we trust them to decide what speech is acceptable?” Katharine Trendacosta, an EFF policy analyst behind the project, told Gizmodo. “We’re hoping to highlight that giving social media companies more rules and control over what’s said on their platforms has serious pitfalls, especially for groups that have historically already had trouble building communities, educating others, and speaking about their experiences. And to highlight the ways that so-called solutions to the problems of social media are unevenly and wrongly enforced.” (Disclosure: Trendacosta is a former staffer of Gizmodo.)
Besides broadening the conversation on who is hurt by online censorship, TOSsed out’s thrust is to demand more transparency from these companies because concrete policy suggestions are difficult with only anecdotal evidence. “Actually, I’d say transparency and clarity are our foundational ask, the baseline from which we everything rests,” she told Gizmodo.
The EFF is still collecting incident reports of censorship through its precursor project, onlinecensorship.org, which began well ahead of the current bitter fight over alleged liberal bias on social platforms. If you were the subject of an unfair takedown or suspension, you can submit a report to the EFF here.