Trust Tales: Can Powerful Social Media Companies Be Trusted?

By Nicolai Fast Sørensen

This interview is part of the series called Trust Tales. Extracts from the IWDK20 magazine, that’s valuable perspectives in the ongoing debate in the technological field. This time it’s Jillian C. York for a talk about the power of Social Media Platforms and what we as consumers, can do about it.

When it comes to the companies behind our favourite social media platforms, great power has not always been balanced with great responsibility.  At least not if you are talking democratic ideals and not if you ask Jillian C. York. York is a Berlin-based freedom of expression activist and writer who says that social media censorship is undemocratic, untransparent and affects us more than we may realize.

Why is it imporant to fight for freedom of expression on the Internet?

The Arab Spring of 2011 shaped my views on freedom of speech because I was involved in the uprising in Tunisia, where I made connections between rebels and journalists. That experience showed me how important social media can be in terms of sending information out to the outside world, but at the same time helping people organize movements. Today, the companies behind the social media platforms have gained so much power over what users can and are allowed to say, which is why I think it’s important to fight for freedom of expression.

How much control do social media platforms really have? 

Social media platforms are involved in some form of governance. For example, Facebook controls the freedom of speech of 2.5 billion people worldwide, because they are responsible for setting the rules for their users, in the same way a government does for its people. The difference, however, is that there is no democracy on Facebook, Google or Twitter. Instead, it’s a small, homogenous group of people who decide what should apply to all of us. It’s therefore important to recognize that social media platforms are new forms of government. So we have to ask questions like: How can, and should, people get involved in freedom of speech decisions on social media? And who should decide what is acceptable to express?


Do social media users generally underestimate the power of the companies behind the platforms?

People are becoming more and more aware of the power of social media. That being said, my impression is that many don’t understand the technology behind social media. Many attribute the decisions to machines and algorithms – and of course, algorithms are implemented in sorting out what people have to say on social media. But it’s an oversimplification of the system because it is also regulated by humans. At the same time, there are examples of different governments intervening in cases of what must be expressed on social media.


Why do we tend to see social media users becoming more aware of the control of social media platforms?

As social media platforms grow, errors will inevitably result in complex decisions about expression, and through the mistakes we have already seem, people have become more aware of the power the platforms have. Ten years ago, mistakes also happened, but the people it affected might not have a strong enough voice to point out the mistakes. But if a larger media personality or politician becomes constrained in their freedom of expression on social media, people are becoming more aware of it today.


Why should social media platforms consider the users’ opinions?

Social media platforms don’t necessarily have to listen to the users’ opinions. But when the platforms saw the light of day, they gave the impression that they would listen. We were led to believe that Facebook and Twitter cared about their users’ point of view. All the social media platforms have historically talked about the importance of free speech and connecting people. But as time has passed, we are seeing a tendency for social media to develop into state devices that regulate freedom of expression. That’s why it’s important that we hold them accountable so that they comply with their ideals.


Why is it important that companies behind social media are transparent?

It’s important that social media platforms are transparent in relationship to their politics. We have to accept that we are not going to get all the freedoms we may want on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. But even if the platforms became fully democratic tomorrow, it would still be important that we as users have insight into how decisions are made regarding our personal freedoms. So we should always strive for more transparency, just like we do within the justice system.

What can users do by themselves to reduce the power of social media platforms?

For starters, we need to be very aware of what we share on social media. We sometimes forget that we have power as users; that we can use our voice to stand up to the companies behind the social media platforms. If we do it collectively we will have a much greater ability to influence them. We have the ability to create change, but it requires us to stand together to protect our freedom of expression.