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Alex Has Opinions: Social Media Nonsense

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Elon Musk is buying Twitter, apparently.

Well, he’s trying to at any rate – the Tesla and Space X owner, known for repeatedly shooting his mouth off on Twitter so hard that he damaged his own company’s stocks and was restrained by his board of directors, evidently doesn’t feel that Twitter’s speech is free enough.

The very concept of ‘freedom of speech’ applying to a social media sight makes my eye twitch. Twitter, Facebook, and all of the programs we use on our phones and computers on a regular basis in the last decade are, despite invading every inch of public life, private companies. They have no obligation to let anyone say anything on their platform – they can, and will, ban people for making joke accounts pretending to be the aforementioned Musk. Right-wing pundit Milo Yiannopoulous was banned from Twitter for encouraging angry, racist followers to harass black actress Leslie Jones over a Ghostbusters movie; more prominently, former President Donald Trump was removed from the short-form social media site after his tweets sparked off a riot in Washington. The platform is, and always has been, whatever Twitter’s boards says goes.

Social media isn’t just localized to nerds like me who hate the sun and stare at screens. I’m sure everyone who reads this paper knows what Facebook is, and I post when this publication goes live there for that reason. It’s become a part of everyone’s life, and frankly, i don’t know if that’s a good thing.

Everything you post on the Internet stays there forever. Yes, things can vanish over time – ‘link decay’ is a phenomenon where old websites cease functioning as time goes on, the result of any number of small patches and upgrades, or tweaks that the software takes on. But unless someone really puts effort into something, a thing is there to stay online, and there are myriads of individuals and groups eager to ensure that everything is archived and backed up, for good or ill. Some just want to preserve the culture of the Internet – others want to gather personal information to attack people, scam them, or just sell them some health product.

If it were just human beings, it would be one thing, but the ever-mysterious algorithms govern most online sites, especially social media. Algorithms, or computer processes that automate and operate computer functions, manage everything online. An algorithm links posts and sites based on terms you’ve searched for, or shows you ‘recommended’ videos based on ones you’ve watched before, or ads based on all the places you’ve been (yes, even THAT website – nothing is unseen on the internet).

The algorithms are designed with a purpose in mind – to keep you using the platform, to ensure your posts are seen by the right people. Note I didn’t say ‘as many people as possible’ – sites like Twitter look for ‘engagement’, or posts that are likely to get the most emphatic responses. And that, of course, means that the algorithm is concerned with promoting posts that make everyone as mad as possible. There’s nothing stronger than the urge to correct someone who’s wrong, whether by explanation, debate, or mocking shame.

If you ever wonder why you see so many posts about conspiracy theories or anti-vax nonsense, that’s part of why.

Algorithms are truly impressive on how intricate, and absurd, their criteria are. “Algo-speak” is a term for particular ways of writing online to try and manipulate the algorithm into showing your post to the right people, by copying similar words, phrases, and structures to popular posts in order to try and game the system. If you’re wondering why “one weird trick” and “you won’t believe what’s next” comes up so much, that’s why. People find their work links languishing with no-one able to see them – or worse, ‘shadow-banned’, where the post doesn’t show up at all, usually due to the algorithm listing certain concepts and words as inappropriate or dangerous without giving any indication that it’d done so.

Algorithms aren’t exempt and impartial from our human errors and biases, either – in fact, they exemplify them. Remember that a human coded an algorithm, decided what it should do, and then gave it a bunch of data so it could match and recognize things. Artificial intelligence is never unbiased – in fact, because it’s not a person and can only run the data it has without the ability to think, it is unhesitatingly biased.

Facial recognition software is my favorite example, where systems routinely run across a problem with being unable to recognize black people – the examples of faces given to it to reference were, bewilderingly, lacking any examples of a black person, meaning it does not recognize those features as a face. These oversights seems so absurd – we take for granted how we can take leaps of logic when there’s no information.

Social media is a minefield of predatory intent – it was made to sell advertisements, to gather information passively from its users to direct ads to them to keep them using, and expose them to products and information third parties pay to promote. Everything else is incidental at best or troublesome and needing to be suppressed at worst, and Musk, the so-called ‘free speech absolutist’ is either ignorant of this or lying to try and promote the ideas he wants.

Or both. They’re not mutually exclusive, sadly.