The Frightening Power of Social Media Bans

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We may have reached the point where not having a Facebook or a Twitter account is something like not having a Social Security number—with this ominous difference: a faceless identity-studies major within the bowels of a tech company can take your accounts away from you forever.

I understand that the number of people who have now unplugged is reaching the millions, but if you are not on Walden Pond and you want to make a sale, or if you believe public discourse is important, think carefully about your choices in the next 10 years.

Imagine trying to market your product without at least one digital social network. Ponder the marketing consultant, anxious to get your better waffle-maker talked about, as you tell him: “I don’t believe in social media of any sort.”

The fact is, without social media sharing and advertising, he just might not have any options available for you at all. Who pays for magazines or newspapers anymore? Who really thinks a cable television advertising buy makes sense? Have you priced freeway billboards or large direct mail campaigns? Even if you could afford them, none of those options really get people talking, debating, and applauding your product. The sharing, and the talking and the tagging and the online reviews are features that just didn’t exist at this level a decade ago.

If you mean to have any influence on public discourse, proceeding without Twitter or Facebook is something like speaking to a full house at Cowboys Stadium without a microphone. Yes, you can set up your own internet shop, write your own blog, fill the garrison with a few of your intellectual comrades, but you face the difficult task of making your website a regular stop. Think about your own internet life. How many sites do you actually check in on without being dropped there by your friends’ links on social media?

I ponder all of this knowing that my perspective on Islam, transgenders, feminists, and identity grievance pimps will routinely arouse the censors at Facebook. It’s one thing to have enemies. It’s quite another to know that those enemies have a soft shoulder to cry on over at Facebook and Twitter. A friend of mine who gets jailed a lot told me that once you’re on their radar, it’s only a matter of time before you are completely banned, or, probably more effectively, shadowbanned.

I’m not sure we really understand the power of this new reality.

Instead of a dumb radio-magnetic beast—a tower or a cable network—indiscriminately radiating out a single television or radio message at a time, the new network is a marvelously complicated lattice of human souls and psyches, each creating content, or passing on a story with the enormous added value of their personal endorsement. There is a reason why the advertising in my Facebook feed is more engaging than the reverse mortgage commercials on Fox News. There is a reason why I gravitate to the news stories my friends’ post. It’s marvelously personal. My friends are worried, or excited, about this? I’m clicking. I’m reading.

I’m not sure some of you know what is at stake with a Twitter ban or a Facebook jailing. Understand this: they now have the power to shut down those portions of the neural network they don’t like. Word of mouth, the single most powerful tool for changing political opinions and economic decisions, can now be filtered and controlled—unless we get angry about it.

So what do we do?

In the best of all possible worlds, a media giant would understand that a truly open platform would attract all of the people who truly wanted to explore the world’s products and ideas. Unfortunately, it would likely be a very offensive place, full of crackpots, conspiracy theories, and actual hate speech. It would also allow discussion of topics that are deemed too sensitive for government institutions and centers of “higher learning.” In other words, it would be a place for the necessary conversations, the conversations that need to rage and ramble without regard for feelings. That’s the only way to knock the intellectual sludge away from the jeweled ore.

Unfortunately, big corporations become timid, even if they don’t start out that way. They yield to intransigent, minuscule constituencies—just because those constituencies squeak so loudly that entire divisions of earnest young functionaries are assigned to grease them. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb made clear in Skin in the Game, some of these very small, very passionate objectors constitute a dictatorship of the minority. Sooner or later, your open discussion begins to feel like pre-approved whispering in East Germany, prior to Sheriff Reagan arriving in town. Bottom line: I don’t hold out much hope for risk-taking media billionaires on this front.

The next option might include fervent, almost religious, devotion to other social media options—MeWe, Minds, Disqus, Tumblr, Reddit, and so on. I’m fairly sure someone has an app for auto-posting everything you write, or share, to all of them at once. If those of us on the Right chose one of them, en masse, perhaps the weight of new accounts would start to speak, and the market could actually function. Getting us free-thinkers to work together on a common course of action might be difficult, but maybe someone could tug on the president’s ear. Suppose, to punish Twitter, he chose a new platform every week?

We could, of course, ask for some trust-busting as well. Once a single corporation begins to dominate what has become, essentially, a new utility, there are grounds for regulating the digital white pages as common carriers, obligated to carry all of the traffic offered up to it, without discrimination. (For the sake of clarity, think of it this way: “Sorry, you can’t have electricity because you voted for the NRA candidate.”)

If Mark Zuckerberg saw every conservative profile avatar changed to Teddy Roosevelt, I suppose there’s a small chance it might give him pause, but not without several invitations to testify before Congress. Most of the people with the power to put fear in the social media giants, however, have become “too big to jail,” so I’m not sure they understand the price some of us have to pay.

Speaking of that, there’s something we all do to each other when we endure the loss of a social media account. We “kid” each other about being in jail. Stop it. It’s not funny. There are people I can’t contact right now. There are ads I can’t place for my business. There’s an annoying “hate speech” pop-up I have to read whenever I mistakenly “like” or attempt to “share” something. If you were at a cocktail party, and the host used three goons to put gorilla tape over the mouth of a guest, I suppose a twisted type might laugh, but it’s different when you are the one being gagged. When you are put in social media jail, it’s very much like becoming an untouchable, an “outside the camp and unclean” person. You can watch. You can be lectured. But you can’t respond.

You shouldn’t find it amusing. You should be angry, and that anger, if focused, might be the way we battle this thing. If one of your friends is jailed—and the jailing isn’t related to posting tempting pictures of Kate Upton—perhaps you might consider sending a feedback to Facebook, letting them know you’re deactivating for 3 days in honor of your friend. If deactivating is too dangerous for you, there are apps that actually keep you from accessing a site. Set a timer for 12 hours or 72 hours. Let them know that being worried about sharia isn’t a “hate crime,” that ridiculing muscle-bound trans athletes is not “intolerant,” that insulting a Jew-hating congresswoman is protected by the First Amendment, if not their editorial “standards.”

Suppose we all took the pledge to do this at least three times a year.

If Facebook knew it was losing, say, 100 accounts for every jailing, they just might remember that they are actually in business to make money.

About James Patrick Riley

James Riley is the owner and operator of Riley's Farm in Oak Glen, California and the creator of "Courage, New Hampshire," a television drama seen on PBS stations across the country. The father of six children, Riley performs "Patrick Henry" and supervises a living history program visited by hundreds of thousands of school children. He holds a degree in history from Stanford University.

Photo: Getty Images

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