Hey, Elon! The problem with freedom of speech is not censorship, but algorithms

Imagine that there is a public speaking square in your city, similar to the ancient Greek agora. Here you are free to share your ideas without censorship.

But there is a key difference. Someone decides, for their own economic benefit, who can listen to what speech or which speaker. And this is also not revealed when you log in. You can only get a few listeners when you talk, while someone else with similar ideas has a large audience.

Would this really be freedom of speech?

This is an important issue because modern agoras are social media platforms – and so they organize speech. Social media platforms do not just present to users the posts of those who follow, in the order in which they are published.

Rather, algorithms decide what content to display and in what order. IN our study, we called this “algorithmic audience”. And we believe that this requires a closer look at the debate on how freedom of speech is practiced online.

Our understanding of freedom of speech is too limited

The debate on free speech was once again fueled by news of Elon Musk’s plans take over Twitterhis promise to reduce content moderation (including by recovery Donald Trump’s account) and recent speculation that he may get out from the deal if Twitter can’t prove the platform isn’t flooded with bots.

Musk’s approach to freedom of speech is typical of how this question often emerges: content moderation, censorshipas well as questions about what kind of speech can enter and stay on the platform.

But our study reveals that this focus misses how platforms systematically impede free speech on the part of the audience rather than the speaker.

Outside the social media debate, freedom of speech is usually understood as “free trade in ideas“. Speech is about discourse, not just the right to speak. Algorithmic intervention in who will hear which speech serves to directly undermine this free and fair exchange of ideas.

If social media platforms are “The digital equivalent of a town square” committed to defending freedom of speech, both Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook and Musk arguesthen algorithmic listening must be considered in order for speech to be free.

How it works

The algorithmic audience is realized through algorithms that either amplify or limit the scope of each message on the platform. This is done by design, based on the revenue logic of the platform.

Algorithms for news channels amplify the content it retains consumers most “engaged” because engagement leads consumers to pay more attention to targeted advertising and more data collection options.

This explains why some users have a large audience, while others have similar ideas barely noticeable. Those who talk to the algorithm achieve the widest possible dissemination of their ideas. It’s like large-scale social engineering.

At the same time the work of Facebook and Twitter the algorithms remain largely opaque.

How it hinders freedom of speech

Algorithmic auditing has a significant effect on public discourse. While content moderation only applies to harmful content (which constitutes a a small part of the whole speech on these platforms), the algorithmic audience is systematically applied to all content.

Until now, this kind of interference with freedom of speech has been neglected because it is unprecedented. This was not possible in the traditional media.

And it is relatively soon for social media. In the early days, messages would simply be sent to someone’s serial network instead of being algorithmically distributed. Facebook, for example, has just begun to fill news channels with help of algorithms which optimize for commitment in 2012, after it was publicly announced and faced increased pressure to generate revenue.

In the last five years alone, the algorithmic audience has really become a widespread problem. At the same time, the extent of the problem is not fully known because it is almost impossible for researchers to gain access to the platform data.

But we know that dealing with it is important because it can lead to the spread of harmful content, such as misinformation and misinformation.

We know such content comment and share moreattracting additional amplification. Own Facebook research showed that its algorithms can lead users to join extremist groups.

What can be done?

Individual Twitter users need to be careful Elon Musk’s latest tips to reorganize their newscasts back in chronological order, which would limit the degree of application of an algorithmic audience.

You can also do this for Facebook, but not as the default setting – so you’ll need to select this option every time you use the platform. This is the same case with Instagram (which is also owned by Facebook’s parent company, Meta).

Moreover, the transition to chronological order will only limit the algorithmic audience – because you will still receive other content (besides the one you have directly joined), which will be directed to you based on the revenue logic of the platform.

We also know that only a fraction of consumers are changing their default settings. Ultimately, regulation is required.

While social media platforms are private companies, they enjoy broad privileges to moderate the content of their platforms under section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act.

In return, the public expects the platforms to facilitate the free and fair exchange of their ideas, as these platforms provide space where public discourse takes place. Algorithmic listening is a violation of this privilege.

According to US lawmakers regulation of social media, addressing the algorithmic audience should be on the table. However, so far this has hardly been part of the debate – with a focus on content moderation.

Any serious regulation will have to challenge the whole business model of the platforms, as the algorithmic audience is a direct result of supervisory capitalist logic – where platforms capture and transform our content and data to predict (and influence) our behavior – all to generate profit.

Until we regulate this use of algorithms and the revenue logic that underlies it, speech on social media will never be free in the true sense of the word.

Article from Kai ReimerProfessor of Information Technology and Organization, University of Sydney and Sandra PeterDirector, Sydney Business Insights, University of Sydney

This article has been republished by The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read on original article.

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