It will take more than hollow gestures to save social media

The emptiness of this month's concessions, in this political moment, signals a grim future for major platforms. 

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The past two weeks have seen an onslaught of anti-racist gestures from nearly every major social media platform. On the face of it, these actions look like progress. On 29 June, YouTube banned a number of white supremacist channels, including those of the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer and the former leader of the KKK, David Duke. On 2 July, Reddit took down more than 2,000 subreddits for hate speech, including the notorious white nationalist space r/The_Donald. This week, Twitter banned Stefan Molyneux, who has said he does not "view humanity as a single species", following the permanent suspension of other controversial figures, including the former Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins, last month. On Tuesday Mark Zuckerberg met with civil rights leaders including NAACP CEO Derrick Johnson and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League Jonathan Greenblatt. 

You’d be forgiven for thinking that social media companies were having, like most large Western companies, a reflective moment. None of these actions, in a vacuum, seems unworthy of praise. But dig a little deeper and a different reality reveals itself – something beyond the fact that these acts are nothing but a hollow gesture. 

After Zuckerberg’s meeting last night, civil rights leaders were vocal in their disappointment. “I don't feel our demands were met with the seriousness of the stakes,” said co-CEO of Free Press, Jessica González, according to a Politico report.  “The meeting was long on time but short on commitments,” added Greenblatt.

And of the thousands of forums taken down by Reddit, almost all – including r/The_Donald – had long been dormant. Some had received only a handful of posts in recent months.

Both Twitter and YouTube allowed the now-banned accounts to broadcast hatred and misinformation to millions of people for years. Should it really have taken this cultural moment for the former leader of the KKK to have his channel taken down? 

Social media companies make such gestures all the time, but these measures tell us something else about how these companies work. Beneath each is an implicit acknowledgement of a truth that social media CEOs may finally be admitting to themselves: their companies can never be anything close to hate-free unless they shoulder the responsibility, the PR fallout and the very real financial cost that it would take to make them that way. 

In a post on Reddit, CEO Steve Huffman wrote, "All communities on Reddit must abide by our content policy in good faith. We banned r/The_Donald because it has not done so, despite every opportunity." He continued to admit that Reddit had "fallen short" on content moderation. "We are committed to working with you to combat the bad actors, abusive behaviours, and toxic communities that undermine our mission," he said.

But making such spaces truly hate-free would also require answering hard questions. What would it take to make a hate-free Twitter, and what would that look like? Would every post need to be vetted before being shared, and by who? And how about Reddit? Would any expressive language, even gentle swearing or innuendo, need to be carefully considered? 

No matter what answer each platform comes to, it will mean biting the bullet, spending money and incurring permanent reputational damage with large numbers of their users. Not being able to post whatever you want, immediately, would take away the huge draw of these platforms, and vetting posts for content would be a huge task. It would also make these platforms still more central to the debate over offence and free speech (although where would this debate occur, if not on Twitter or Reddit?).

Making social media platforms truly anti-racist, or even truly hate speech-free, would make them something else entirely: a greater societal good, but perhaps not a viable business. 

So we are left with what we should expect to be left with: placation of the masses through the removal of some of the most obvious racists. Meanwhile other less prominent breeding grounds, where most of the hate speech on these platforms already existed, quietly carry on as normal. The point is not to simply hold our applause for social media companies but to realise that this is still, in some way, a moment. But that moment is one where our tech leaders threw in the towel and, in what will likely be seen as one the greatest political upheavals of our lifetime, accepted that nothing was going to tip them towards meaningful change. 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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