Centralized Social Partitions Considered Harmful
What Would You Do?
Last November, I asked my followers a question,
thought experiment: twitter has a dialog box that you have to fill out one day next year. if you press yes, trump and every interaction with him is irrevocably filtered from your feed. no, and they aren’t.— (wannabe) Ƀreaker of (the Bad) Loops (@generativist) November 12, 2020
what do you press?
Most answered in the affirmative. I would answer in the same way. No interaction with him – whether in favor or against – has ever been worth my time.I’ve never followed him but, FWIW, I have reply-guy’d in anger
That isn’t to say I want to simply ignore all references to him, period. That would be foolish. Not only was he the President of the United States, but he was a despotic megalomaniac. America is the country I call home, so it very much matters to me. Yelling “just ignore him” isn’t even a good solution for when two siblings fight in the back seat of your wood-paneled station wagon.
Yet, I am willing to rely on trusted mediation.
And, I have!
You probably have, too.
To a large degree, that is the generalized power and promise of social media.Of course, social media is not just also but is mostly an expressive medium. Thinking about it through a purely instrumental lens is an exercise of futility, at best. “The real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance.” We require indirect sources of information. Historically, such sources were bound by space and time. Technological progression slowly liberated us from both. Now, social media grants us the ability to select our intermediaries from what approaches the world’s entire population.The revolution wasn’t televised – it was topological. Or, something like that. This power is truly incredible. We exist in a space our ancestors could only imagine through the magic of fiction.
However, with great power comes great potential fuckery.
Like ‘propaganda’, ‘manipulation’ currently has negative connotation. The more comfortable and consequently common word to reach for is “influence.” It amounts to the same thing though. When we say someone “influences” us, we mean we’ve escalated their permissions over our beliefs in some critical way. And as we extend trust, we constrict incredulity.
Ideally, this relationship isn’t paired with passivity. When someone’s expressions fail to match either our direct experience or our careful interrogation (or both), our trust in them should degrade. And, with degraded trust, our skepticism of what they have to say grows accordingly.
This is an adaptive process. Human sociality affords distributed search and specialization. The titanic polymath who could deeply understand the entirety of human knowledge is a romanticized relic of a long departed past. Having the world’s information at your fingertips means that you can enter a mind-boggling large amount of the terrain at any given time. But, you can’t explore it all. Time still binds us individually. We need we.
This process becomes mal-adaptive in proportion to the degree that trust becomes a function of something other than our accumulated evaluations of what someone says.In political science literature, negative partisanship refers to one symptomatic manifestation of the syndrome. As it does, the harms associated with the negative connotations of manipulation and propaganda manifest. We find both our emotions and beliefs manipulated in ways at odds with what we would discover independently, given sufficient time and information.
On social media, this happens with fluid ease.
Trump leverages this form of attack relentlessly. Enjoying (pathological) agenda setting power in both traditional media and as social media supernode,I believe supernodes on social media represent a problem in their own right. his ability and inclination to induce mal-adaptive contagion is unrivaled in recent times.
For these reasons, I think Facebook and Twitter banning Trump is, at face-value, reasonable. I also thought it was the correct thing to do in 2016. It’s an emergency scram button to shut down our the hypercritical reactor. Banning Trump broadly facilitates the discovery and expression of beliefs for all participants – online and elsewhere – save Trump. However, I don’t think it’s reasonable to pretend doing so represents a good solution. Instead, it’s merely the best one constrained to those that are easy and without admitting the possibility of better architectures.
A Decent Proposal
Trump’s grip on culture and social media strangles both. But only the latter affords straight-forward technological interventions. Individual action has proven insufficient. There are a myriad of incentives (many of which are also pathological) that prevent people from using mutes and blocks. It is a collective action problem for which the collective has no binding means of consensus formation. The question posed by my tweet allows me to propose a minimally viable one: ask the users.
To be more specific, consider a candidate specification:
promptDate, all users will be presented with a modal dialog asking them to make a
NOdecision. If they answer
@realdonaldtrumpnor any interaction with him gets placed in their feed. That is, twitter filters all of his tweets and replies from both your timeline feed and all user feeds (from the perspective of your account). If you answer
NO, your subjective view does not change. The aggregate vote tallies are visible on each day up until
bindingDate. You may change your vote any time until then. Afterwards, votes and resulting infrastructure changes are commited and irrevocable for each particular account.
I think this solution would facilitate healthy conversation with effects that reverberated offline. Moreover, it does so in a way that expands the agency of twitter users, rather than unilateral restricts it.I’m only interested in twitter because I think it’s a far more important medium and because I think facebook and King Zuck are irredeemable. However, neither hypothetical benefit motivates my reasoning.
I’ve demanded the digital pound of metaphorical flesh many times. In the case of Donald Trump, I’d revel in it. That is to say, I understand viscerally the impulse towards participant expulsion, generally and in this particular.I no longer do, for a variety of reasons, many of which are in this post, but also at least in part because of interactions with twitter friends @sonyasupposedly and @aelkus.
But Banning Trump is unique because it is possible that his move to, say Parler, could drive a mass exodus.I make no claims as to the odds.
The first order effects of such a potential outcome are delightful for many parties, including me. Twitter (and facebook), gets to discharge an asset-that-has-predictably-curdled-into-a-liability. There is a reason neither has acted until recently. And, Gab and Parler aren’t even competitors – they’re White knights. More importantly, those subject to durable social media abuses get genuine harm reduction. Dismissing that is just a smug variant on “fuck your feelings.”
But, reduction associated with displacing the shittiest participants of social media onto a new medium could be an ephemeral mirage. Out of sight, out of mind, and into commercialized hate breeder reactors may not be a good strategy. Thus, the risk I am more interested in at least injecting into the current frenetic conversation is platform balkanization.
Broadly, there are two hypotheses about what happens when these users get isolated on a new network partition (here, in the form of a different platform),
Smothered fire: The echo-chamber becomes a circle jerk; participants get bored for lack of targets; raids on larger networks will occur sporadically but they can’t trigger the same dynamics; the medium fizzles out.
Coal-seam fire: The echo-chamber splits consensus reality in an enduring way; people with similar corrosive beliefs form an even more cohesive orthodoxy; the distance between them and people outside the partition grows; in-group trust pins on maximal, granting uncritical reception of escalatingly radical beliefs.
The smothered fire scenario is seductive. And, it may happen! But, increasingly, the coal seam fire seems…if not more likely, than at least the one that deserves way more focused consideration. 2016 and everything after wasn’t a wildly unlikely bad sample path. It was a continuation. We hid some things from ourselves before then; we want to do so yet again. While criticisms of social media are extremely valid – there is an impressive inventory of problems – blame assignment then and now has some convenience borne of desperation. But, there is at least one critical difference: Public passions and fiduciary responsibilities are currently aligned.
Freedom of Speech vs Reach
Censorship is easy to defend against at low temperatures. It’s our cultural’s default stance. But at high social temperatures where norms diffusely lose stability, so does the strength of our convictions. It becomes easier to withdraw principled support when principles no longer broadly bind.
Things are very hot now.
I have neither the desire nor inclination to defend Donald Trump on free speech grounds. I think people who do so are fools – those who do so in deference to a principle and with precisely zero context, doubly so.
I also think people who pretend it isn’t censorship – that it is a question of reach, rather than speech – miss the point in similar ways. Yes, Twitter is a private company. It has every legal rightSection 230 questions aside. to ban anyone, and especially someone as malignant as Trump. But, I treat it as something more important than that – I treat it as a public commons in hyper-space. Celebrating the corporate entities ability to unilateral tear up a large portion of the social graph makes the contrast obvious. In it, I find myself in a curious position: imploring Lord Jack to consider better alternatives rather than taking the path I previously condemned him for not taking!
The solution I’ve offered isn’t meant as a navigated compromise between the smothered fire or coal seam scenarios. I’m not even sure it’s a reasonable proposal – I haven’t done the work necessary to draw any conclusions. I don’t even have the data or financial resources to do so.Moreover, as far as platforms go, I have much better ideas driving me forward. Instead, it’s just my way of getting people to think more about solutions that preserve the possibility of a social medium that continues to transcend space and time. One in which the space of potential human social interactions is \(n^2\) instead of \(m_1^2+m_2^2 \ll n^2\), winnowed only by boundaries enforced and enforceable by the participants and the participants alone.
To those who reject what I’m saying out of hand – I get it. You’re tired and this whole experiment in kakistocracy coupled with a Clockwork Orange-style compelled viewing has been a tragic catastrophe. I just want to make sure we’re not continuing the tragedy. The obvious compensation for partitioning the social graph may not even be paid out. And, for the sake of correcting our own social delusions, we do need we.