Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Jan 13, 2021
The role of powerful online platforms in the free speech debate is front and centre in the American reckoning. Dipayan Ghosh answers three questions.
US Capitol attack a turning point for the Internet: Dipayan Ghosh

Internet giants are cracking down on fringe groups online after the deadly attack on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. By 12 January, Twitter had suspended more than 70,000 accounts associated with QAnon, a conspiracy collective built around the notion that Trump is a bulwark against child sex trafficking rings run by satanic pedophiles and cannibals. Facebook is scrambling to scrub posts claiming that the US 2020 election was stolen. Apple and Google removed Parler from their app stores and Amazon stopped providing it with web-hosting services. All the companies cited a surge of dangerous content that incites violence. Coming days before the exit of Trump, none of these moves destroy the structural foundations of online extremism. The role of powerful online platforms in the free speech debate is front and centre in the American reckoning. In the context of the current moment, we put three questions to Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms and Democracy Project at Harvard Kennedy School. In earlier roles, Ghosh was a technology policy advisor in the Obama White House and privacy and public policy advisor at Facebook. Here’s what he had to say.

Nikhila Natarajan: This week, we saw new ways to assert platform power. At the same time, we hear Biden and others keep saying that “this is not who we are” in reference to the rioters/mob. But online is where the mayhem was born; it is a lived space. How should we frame the events of 6 January 2021 in relation to the debate around “who we are” online?

Dipayan Ghosh: The events of recent days are a turning point for the Internet. With Trump thrown off of Twitter in the aftermath of his violence-inciting words last week, seemingly the whole world has descended on the social media industry, and for good reason: Is it right for a small group of technology executives to have this much power over democratic discourse? I think not — and if that is right, then it is quite likely that we will see the Biden administration and other jurisdictions move to protect online discourse through new content regulations in the near future.

Natarajan: The decision to ban Trump came after an insurrection, not before or after, say, Charlottesville or when he said masks are optional. Is it that the “visibility” of violence was, in some twisted way, essential to this process? More than 370,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 too, but those deaths happened quietly, in lonely hospital rooms. Did this have a bearing on the outcomes?

Ghosh: Without a doubt, the ban of Trump’s social media accounts come at a very convenient time for the companies in question. Trump is a lame duck president who has even been shunned by many parts of his own political party. As such, he has substantially less sway — whereas the political left now has tremendous political power. It is through this lens that we should examine the takedown actions of the companies; the Trump bans were likely executed in their commercial interest.

Natarajan: How should we be thinking about the effect of account suspensions on the universe of wingnut content?

Ghosh: It is possible that with the bans of Trump’s accounts and the actions taken against Parler, we will see a furious faction of the right recongregate in force on other platforms that feature encrypted communication and align even further toward free expression standards. This could result in the development of more extreme views among many. The key, though, is that such content is not likely to have substantial impact on the mainstream social media platforms — and therefore will have diminished overall impact. We must be careful, though; given the possibility of more extreme views, we must also be careful to protect ourselves against the corresponding possibility of more violence.

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Nikhila Natarajan

Nikhila Natarajan

Nikhila Natarajan is Senior Programme Manager for Media and Digital Content with ORF America. Her work focuses on the future of jobs current research in ...

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