A battle is on for what is read, watched and listened to on the internet. Authoritarian regimes are devising systems of internet censorship, while hackers and technological innovators are devising ways to get around these virtual barriers. In the West, some legislation poses threats to internet freedom, but at the moment, social media is the major battlefield in the fight for and against free expression online. At present, major social media platforms are becoming increasingly hostile toward free speech. Meanwhile, disillusionment with what appears to be a big tech crackdown on free expression is giving rise to competition. As competing social media platforms roll out, the battle for market share will have implications on future political discourse. Major players in tech and media are already taking sides.
The new big tech norm
In the western world, big tech firms based in Silicon Valley currently enjoy a dominant position in the social media market. Facebook has more than 2 billion active users, and Google controls the top two search engines in the world, one of which is the world’s leading video platform. Twitter, while not quite the tech giant that is Facebook or Google, currently has the president of the United States using its platform to communicate with the world.
With this dominant position, western social media giants have come under pressure from governments and opponents of free speech, or “hate speech,” to restrict content that is published on their platforms. The dominant position also gives social media giants the ability to wield considerable political influence, something they do by algorithmically and manually determining what content gets spread, restricted and prohibited.
In recent years, and particularly in recent months, big tech firms have embarked upon a purge of critical western voices from major social media platforms. Alex Jones, the founder of the Infowars media brand, was kicked off nearly every major social media platform; Facebook purged approximately 800 political pages in the run-up to this month’s U.S. midterm election; and individuals who make controversial statements are consistently getting kicked off major platforms. Last week, for instance, Twitter booted conservative activist-journalist Laura Loomer and feminist writer Meghan Murphy. Twitter’s politics lean left, but as evidenced by the ban of Murphy, it is not just conservatives who are being targeted. The overall purge has affected critical leftist and libertarian voices, as well, and fringe political views are gradually being eroded from the major platforms.
Big tech firms have yet to face blowback significant enough for them to put a halt to restricting political speech. Government regulation could be coming but is not imminent. Rather than in the halls of congress or parliament, the battle over speech on social media is taking shape in the free market.
Existing alt-tech platforms
As a consequence of the rising social media censorship, demand has arisen for decentralized platforms that uphold freedom of speech. Over the past couple of years, a variety of functioning, largely decentralized social media platforms have popped up. Others platforms are in the works, and the best may still be yet to be conceptualized. The innovation is, in part, a byproduct of blockchain technology, which threatens to potentially disrupt numerous industries through the implementation of decentralized, peer-to-peer transactions and interactions.
The new platforms have been engineered to address what critics of social media giants describe as both hard and soft censorship. In the social media realm, the banning of users and deletion of content from platforms constitute hard censorship, while shadow-banning, or restricting the reach of content, and demonetization constitute forms of soft censorship, critics of big tech platforms say. Demonetization, which is especially prevalent on Youtube, is essentially Google cutting off lucrative ad revenue to video creators who publish controversial content. Youtube creators in the genre of news and politics, particularly ones broadcasting anti-establishment perspectives, have been hit especially hard by demonetization.
Both proponents and opponents of the new, pro-free speech platforms have begun labeling them as “alt-tech.” Basically, alt-tech is a technological field and group of innovations that have arisen in response to disillusionment with big tech companies and their products and services. Some of the existing alt-tech social media platforms are:
BitChute is a YouTube alternative that launched in January 2017. Conservative YouTubers who have been hit with hard and soft censorship have migrated to BitChute. Likewise, BitChute has attracted WatchMojo, a mainstream YouTube channel with nearly 20 million subscribers. Thus far, BitChute has proved more functional and capable of hosting large amounts of video than other decentralized YouTube alternatives.
Gab is a Twitter alternative that launched in August 2016 and has as much, if not more, appeal than BitChute to the political right. On Gab, users can post multi-media content with up to 300 characters. The platform also offers an alternative to Twitter’s video streaming app Periscope.
Minds, launched in 2015, is arguably a competitor with Facebook. The platform includes a news feed, blogs, photos, videos, groups and a messaging system. Minds is integrating a cryptocurrency rewards system that pays content creators and runs on the popular Ethereum blockchain. Recently, Minds raised $6 million in funding from a subsidiary of Overstock.com.
Steemit, which launched in March 2016, is primarily a blogging platform with an established cryptocurrency rewards system that has enabled some popular content creators to make hundreds or even thousands of dollars (USD) per post when the crypto market is high. Steemit is built on the Steem blockchain and has its own cryptocurrencies, which are called Steem and Steem Dollars. A YouTube alternative, DTube, was built on the Steem blockchain and integrated into Steemit, but it has been hampered by technical glitches.
General criticism of these alt-tech platforms includes: they are not as user-friendly as the major social networks, and they are echo chambers for people with similar political and world views. Critics, particularly in mainstream media, have also regularly accused the alt-tech platform of providing havens for racism, bigotry and anti-semitism.
Is big tech signaling alt-tech is a threat?
Some recent events suggest big tech views alt-tech as a threat. Rather than merely ignoring alt-tech, big-tech has attempted to suppress competing social media platforms. At times, major social media platforms target their competition directly, and in other instances, their Silicon Valley allies apply pressure to alt-tech networks.
In a case of direct pressure, Facebook blocked links posted on its platform that direct users to Minds, labeling the links as “unsecure.” Citing hate speech, Apple rejected Gab’s mobile app, and Google removed it from its app store. Likewise, Twitter cut off access to Gab’s application programming interface (API) that allowed users to automatically share posts on both platforms. In a more high-profile move, Gab’s hosting provider pulled its services, temporarily forcing the social network offline. Additionally, PayPal banned Gab and Bitchute from using its payment processing system. PayPal, in particular, has often acted in unison with other big tech firms, banning individual users who get kicked off social networks, and in these cases, banning actual platforms.
The brewing media war over social media
Often, a media blitz against individual content creators and alt-tech platforms precedes their targeting for bans by big-tech. Prior to Alex Jones and Infowars getting kicked off countless platforms, major western media, particularly CNN, ran stories questioning whether big tech would give Alex Jones and Infowars the boot. In October, following the deadly shooting at a United State synagogue in Pittsburgh, major media, including CNN, took aim at Gab.
The Pittsburgh gunman had posted anti-Semitic comments, possibly signaling his intentions, on Gab prior to opening fire at the synagogue. Major media and left-leaning publications seized on the remarks, running stories linking Gab to the deadly shooting. The news cycle was followed by Gab getting dumped by its hosting provider and Paypal. The shooter had posted on other platforms, including Twitter, but Gab was still the recipient of the media blitz.
On the one hand, the battle between big tech and alt-tech is a battle of developers. Can the developers creating and building upon decentralized platforms produce social media networks that are user-friendly and equipped with attractive features that would lure users away from centralized platforms? On the other hand, the battle is being fought in the media. Clear battle lines are being drawn. Media of all kinds have a dog in the fight.
Major western media are promoted as authoritative sources on Facebook, Google, YouTube and other big tech platforms, while they face frequent criticism on, and sometimes by, decentralized platforms. Meanwhile alternative western media are frequently banned, shadow-banned and demonetized by big tech platforms, while alt-tech platforms provide them havens, monetization opportunities and, in some cases, outright promotion. Gab and BitChute, for instance, frequently take to Twitter to promote alternative media that have migrated to their platforms, while criticizing mainstream media for the alleged htitpieces they run on alt-tech platforms. Twitter, thus far, has refrained from banning its alt-tech competitors’ accounts.
Possible outcomes of the battle over the social media market
A range of possible outcomes exists in this battle over social media marketshare, which is also a battle over the marketplace of ideas. Big tech could outmaneuver and squash its competition, leaving social media increasingly centralized and leaving dissenting voices increasingly silenced. Or, a major backlash against big tech could occur, ending with alt-tech supplanting it and effectively becoming the new big tech. As proof of the latter being a possibility, some observers cite the case of Myspace, which was once the leading social media platform prior to getting supplanted by Facebook and falling into obscurity.
A middle ground outcome might be big tech social media adopting popular popular features from alt-tech platforms. For instance, Facebook could roll out a cryptocurrency or monetization system that financially rewards users for the content they produce. Still, if that were to occur, one might question whether the monetization system would be skewed like YouTube’s existing version, rewarding establishment creators and punishing critical voices. Nonetheless, if faced with a popular backlash and many users jumping ship to alt-tech platforms, big tech could be pressured into walking back its censorship and restoring more free expression.
As things currently exist, individuals, groups and entities with influence can lobby for the censorship of their political opponents on social media. Alternative platforms have emerged, but thus far, their reach is quite limited. If social media will continue to be a leading location for political debate and the exchange of ideas, control of platforms — whether they be centralized or decentralized and for or against free expression — will greatly impact the future of western politics.