Social Platforms Hate Transparency. We Need To Demand It From Them.
Facebook, Twitter, and their compulsive need to keep us in the dark about the very platforms we’re spending our lives on
Why are the decisions and operations of social media platforms so opaque and unaccountable? Isn’t it weird that tools serving our communication needs are run by folks who are themselves so bad at communication? I know, I know—these companies aren’t really concerned about communication. I absolutely get that they are advertising companies first and foremost. In fact, in a post about Facebook from last year, I wrote:
There is a remarkable disparity between Facebook’s stated mission and its actual mission. Facebook claims to be doing what it does in order to “build community” and to “bring the world closer together.” Yet its actual mission is this: maximal monetization from the commodification and exploitation of their users via monopolistic surveillance efficacy. Basically, they get money from advertisers who are looking for the sort of precision in their ad-targeting that Facebook makes available to them.
So I understand these social platforms aren’t on some benevolent quest to enhance our communicative abilities. But what I’m saying is that, their corporate intentions aside, the technologies they have produced to attract users is communication technology. And these companies are…quite bad at communication. Willfully so, in many cases.
All of this matters, of course, because the decisions they take can be highly consequential. What they say, what they don’t say—their decisions greatly impact, without care or warning, the very entities whose attention spans they are harvesting for lucrative gains. This is our world now, folks. A world in which, “Instagram has updated its policy” is a momentous declaration.
Just recently, news broke that Mic, the self-styled publication for millennials, went under largely because Facebook decided to kill a video partnership between the companies. That, of course, was just the coup de grâce. Mic’s real problems stemmed from a decision that — you guessed it — Facebook made years ago to overhaul their algorithms.
The publication never recovered. It wedded its strategy to a platform’s capacity to continue delivering traffic. When that abruptly changed, it was hard for the publication to adjust. Obviously Mic’s owners are responsible for the site’s fall. But they were under-served, as were so many others, by a platform that gave them lots of utility and then switched everything up.
And these platforms aren’t merely opaque; they’re actively deceptive. Before “pivot to video” became a meme, a euphemism for layoffs in journalism, it was an actual strategy. Based on metrics Facebook provided. Metrics that turned out to be way off. It’s hard to take seriously the idea that Facebook, a company that employs highly competent data scientists, made good-faith mistakes in their calculations, mistakes that—shockingly, of course—increased their revenue totals. I mean, weird that the “mistake” didn’t affect them in the other direction, right? Weird that they don’t make mistakes that decrease revenue.
On Twitter, recent controversies have had to do with wondering why certain users get suspended or banned while others do not. Twitter bans all manner of (admittedly obnoxious) folks on the right, but somehow, Louis Farrakhan’s account remains in good standing. Whatever would we do without access to thought-provoking #content of this kind:
But it’s not even just about why some users get banned while others don’t. It’s also about figuring out whether certain users are even banned at all. Since Twitter rarely comments on the decisions it takes save for whatever pallid, H.R.-approved descriptions of rule violations that accompany an offense, we never quite know what’s going on.
Take, for example, the conservative neo-scalping savant Jesse Kelly, who made great hay about being “permanently banned” by Twitter, only to re-emerge days later right back into our timelines, like a desert eagle rising from the ashes. (Confession: I don’t actually follow Kelly.) Did Twitter reverse its “permanent ban”? It’s likelier Kelly exploited Twitter’s aloofness, banking on the social platform to stay silent while he leveraged a mere temporary suspension into the money pit that is performative right-wing iconoclasm. And just like that, we were back to being blessed with gems of this quality.
What bothers me the most about the way these platforms are run is their inscrutable, uneven decision-making and their unacceptable guardedness. We should demand better and more accountability from our social platforms. It’s one thing to complain about the algorithm changing—that’s important, of course. But it’s another thing entirely to demand greater transparency, and to threaten an exodus if the demands aren’t met. This calls for a more comprehensive kind of reform, certainly, but it is a necessary reform. We are spending our lives on these platforms. Those who run them need to listen to us.