We frequently bring up the right of free speech where issues of amplification are concerned.
All media is an exercise in prioritisation. We’ve seen again and again during these years that it’s possible for Facebook to tweak its algorithm to modify what bubbles through the newsfeed of its users:
Typically, N.E.Q. (a ranking it assigns to news publishers based on signals about the quality of their journalism) scores play a minor role in determining what appears on users’ feeds. But several days after the election, Mr. Zuckerberg agreed to increase the weight that Facebook’s algorithm gave to N.E.Q. scores to make sure authoritative news appeared more prominently. […]
It resulted in a spike in visibility for big, mainstream publishers like CNN, The New York Times and NPR, while posts from highly engaged hyperpartisan pages, such as Breitbart and Occupy Democrats, became less visible, the employees said.
They simply choose not to: viral content pays the bills. More so than speech, it’s attention that we’re fighting over.
It should also be noted that censorship alone doesn’t work in an information-dense society. As Zeynep Tufekci wrote a couple of years ago:
The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself. As a result, they don’t look much like the old forms of censorship at all. They look like viral or coordinated harassment campaigns, which harness the dynamics of viral outrage to impose an unbearable and disproportionate cost on the act of speaking out. They look like epidemics of disinformation, meant to undercut the credibility of valid information sources. They look like bot-fueled campaigns of trolling and distraction, or piecemeal leaks of hacked materials, meant to swamp the attention of traditional media.
Until value will be assigned by counting likes, and recency will triumph over accuracy, there’s little hope that the quality of the information surfaced by social media will improve. However, it wasn’t just the algorithm here that abdicated to its responsibility to keep the public informed. Newspapers, radio and television spent the last four years constructing their narration of the events from something someone has said on Twitter.
Blocking only tackles the tip of the iceberg, the obvious abuse. The solution will eventually have to include rethinking how content is prioritised and how importance is distributed. The noise we experience on these platforms is a direct consequence of the logic of said platforms. Speed and ease of replication — the ability to take an utterance from an account with 10 followers and re-cast it to millions of strangers by clicking a retweet button — aren’t just features but an objective. Viral content pays the bills.