Medium Response #6 — Filtering
COMS490 Sp16

Algorithmic Filtering & Censorship

Filtering affects social movements in a few ways. Namely, it affects the visibility of a social movement. When a group of people band together for a cause and want to drum up support, social media is one of the first go to platforms to do so. If there is not enough buzz about it, though, its not going to trend. However, if there is too much buzz, it may bubble and still not trend. So if a social movement begins to gain ground all over the place and trends rapidly, there movement may still be stuck because of this filtering.

In the early days of the internet (think early 2000's) nothing was really filtered or organized, even Google was in its nascent stage and you could find yourself going through multiple pages of a google search. Now, hardly any of us venture past the first page of results (or even the first half page). The point is, whether we realize it or not, we are being “guided”. Its like we’ve regressed from riding a bike full speed to teetering down the street with the training wheels on. Filtering is the training wheels. It keeps you on a relatively steady path at a predictable rate and trajectory. Some people may say that there’s too much content on the internet and that this is just a way to help clean up the clutter. But in “cleaning the clutter” or keeping the training wheels on, lies a hidden danger. The danger lies in the idea that it may very well be controlling what you think, because it ultimately controls what information you receive (or don’t). For social movements, this can be a death sentence.

Building awareness and gaining visibility across media channels is a huge factor when it comes to the success of a social movement. I think that when it comes to social movements nowadays, the use of social media is a must. It is one of the quickest ways to get millions of eyes on your content. But, when your campaign suddenly finds itself stuck in the mud, and you can’t seem to break through, there is a possibility that you may be hindered by the very same social media you trusted to get your message out in the first place.

So who has the power? Who decides what is allowed to trend and what will be killed off? Well that comes down to the algorithms and the people who create the “rules” or “safety measures” for the sites. In some cases filtering can prove useful, if a large group of people decided to dump a bunch of gore onto twitter and hashtag it, Twitter has a vested interest in killing that trend and silencing it before it got out to a broad audience. But, when people who have a differing opinion on a subject matter that might be rather touchy for a lot of people (ex. Elections, Gamergate), then we venture into a very very gray territory. Sort of like having an editor at a newspaper, social media platforms have the final say in whats “news” and whats not; who gets to trend and who doesn’t. Algorithmic filtering in and of itself may not be a form of censorship, but when they tell the algorithm that certain things are not allowed to trend or simply silence (see shadowbans) those who they deem unworthy or offensive.

This leads me to my final thought on algorithmic filtering; when a social media site begins steering what the public sees and does not see, I become very concerned. I am very concerned. For both Facebook and Twitter it has been well documented (see ferguson v. ALS ice bucket challenge) that they are not playing fair when it comes to what trends and what doesn’t.

For more info on Shadowbans and algorithmic filtering, here are a few articles: