Social Media got no face, let alone spine

Partha Chakraborty-

Partha Chakraborty

Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.


Nothing can be less glamorous than the moniker “”, as Twitter was originally envisioned. Prototyped in Mar 2006 with the name “Twttr” it launched as “Twitter” in July that year. It went from 7000 tweets a day in 2007 to over 500 million in 2013. It took till May 2009 to reach its first billionth tweet, now it takes less than 2 days to generate as many (almost 6000 a second). In January 2010, astronaut Timothy Creamer sent out the first live tweet from space. Now even Mars Perseverance Rover has a Twitter account, whose last tweet at the time of writing was on June 15, 2021; it was looking wistfully at a boulder as it passed by.


Twitter’s annualized growth rate peaked to over 900% in 2010, it has since cooled off to around 30%. Hit the road, Jack, and fast.


Solution to all growth problems lies in India, especially since the company is banned in China. With 700 million people connected to the Internet, and an exploding appetite for information, India is the top growth engine for the firm. Trouble is, nobody is making it easy for them.


For any service that aims to reach every pocket, and mind, legal framework under which it operates is a critical success factor. Title 47 U.S. Code § 230 – Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material (“Article 230”) provides the legal framework in the US. It reads, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”


Indian Penal Codes carry substantially same intent in Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000. It reads: “Notwithstanding anything contained in any law for the time being in force but subject to the provisions of sub-sections (2) and (3), an intermediary shall not be liable for any third-party information, data, or communication link made available or hosted by him.”


An important caveat (sub-sections (2) & (3) as above) limits this protection only to cases where the intermediary is simply providing access and not initiating/selecting receiver of the transmission, does not select or modify the information, does not conspire or knowingly abet an unlawful act and they follow guidelines issued under its purview.


I am no lawyer, and nothing in this article shall be construed as legal advice under any jurisdiction. From a layperson’s point of view what seems apparent is that laws in both countries distinguish between an “interactive computer service provider” and a media establishment. Both clusters are individually protected by First Amendment rights; nevertheless, these laws provide specific protection for those who are simply hosting materials or similar. First Amendment rights of the media are well understood – as an Op-ed writer I am protected for the slant / opinion I create, within generous boundaries, but I cannot invent news that fits my opinion. We needed protection for these new platforms, including social media that have come to rule our very existence – Facebook, Twitter and the like.


Are Facebook and Twitter (or Instagram or….) media? Or, are they just “interactive computer service providers”? My best layperson’s guess is that they are the former. By choosing recipients of information, and directing content, they mold recipients’ worldview.


Let’s walk back around hundred and fifty years. Imagine a simple wooden board put up in the center of a no-name small town. Every person is entitled to put up a message/information/article/items for sale/…The contents of these little chits of paper vary from benign (“carriage-maker looking for work”) to vile (“slaves for sale”), pious (“Lord saves us all”) to pugnacious (“down with the Irish”); many of them an affront even those wild times. That said, whosoever put up the message board is not concerned, they are only acting in good faith. Move ahead about fifty years; imagine the same service but in the form of leaflets being left at doorsteps. Whoever collects the messages as they come, and prints them, is not responsible for the content. The “interactive computer service provider” model of today is identical to that of the person who puts up the message board, or the printer, or even the boy on a bicycle who distributes these leaflets.


Now imagine that the printer gets to choose messages in an individualized leaflet. He is troubled that Irishmen are receiving leaflets with messages that say “Down with the Irish”, and refusing renewal subscription. Responsible citizen and profit-seeking businessman as he is, let’s imagine he decides to omit offending Irish-hating messages from leaflets that are left at Irish doorsteps. Good man! In so doing, he fundamentally altered who he is – he is no longer an innocent printer, he is a packager of information, and hence, he distorts the worldview of his audience. In other words, he is the media!!


It does not take a genius to make the parallel between social media of today and the prototypical printer of those leaflets. Both of them intended to just host information and views generated by others. Legitimate profit motive moved them to tailor bespoke packages for each user – that precisely is what a social-media algorithm is meant to do in order to drive usage stats. As I have covered on these pages repeatedly before, Facebook exists to optimize data exhaust to suit their business needs by manipulating user feeds.


There is no reason Facebook cannot be considered a media outlet. Ditto for Instagram and many others.


Twitter was supposed to be different, slightly. You need to ‘subscribe’ to somebody’s tweets. In theory, a chronological list of all subscribed tweets on your screen would have absolved the firm, at least that’s how I read it. However, that does not make business sense – the idea is to get your attention to tweets that are already being read, and retweeted, by others. Network effect feeds on itself, and it is good for business, so your feed becomes a list that the company wants you to see, tailored. Using parallels to our printer hypothetical, Twitter just became a media company.


Governance of media outlets is very different from that of “interactive computer service” provider. A fuller analysis is far above my pay grade. This much is true that no matter what – media outlets are responsible for content, even as they are protected by First Amendment rights. To tweet, nee, to wit, media outlets must ensure veracity of what goes on their pages, and rectify good-faith errors. That is true for The New York Times, as much as it is true for Facebook and Twitter.


That leaves Social Media companies in an unenviable position, especially in India.


Indian media survived, even prospered, in the bleakest of times. During the Emergency, powers were switched off for every newspaper in Delhi to bring them to submission, an executive decree was issued suspending Article 19, the one that grants rights to free speech. Media was subjected to censorship and disinformation, incessant coercion and random jailing of prominent personalities. Editors were specifically instructed not to leave blank spaces or identify the published material as censored – a common form of protest during British Raj. Still, they did, in symbolic acts of defiance. Long story short, media not only survived and thrived, the hand that brought Emergency with a purported goal of saving the democracy was thrown out next general election.


What media had at the time was the editorial spine. Facebook / Twitter also got no face, let alone a spine. That may be the heart of the problem.


Traditional media is used to the hammer coming down hard, that does not stop them from vaunted editorial principles – at least that’s the narrative for the ones that celebrate rebirth even when individuals are hanged on town square. Editorial spine is their rai·son d’ê·tre, far beyond life (and at times death) of individual pall-bearers. Social Media companies, everywhere, are trying to have their cake, and eat it too. The cynical would claim they are simply mimicking the spinelessness of their users who take an easy way to getting their daily dose of infotainment. That does not make these companies immune to scrutiny and supervision.


Unlike traditional media social platforms have meager content supervision and no editorial spine. No matter how much they fight, their business model shall face death-blows until they change. They can choose to have no editorial act, thus being simple aggregators, but that would be the end of their business proposition. Or, they can choose to have strong editorial policy, streamlined content supervision and grievance redressal. In a not-so-distant future, they cannot choose to be either.


Simply being who they are, social media is media. That means growing up, taking a stand and facing consequences.  It is a shame they are neither equipped nor interested for the higher standards.