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Breakup! Addendum 1: Reputational Contagion
What follows is a lightly edited excerpt from a white paper I wrote in 2018 for the web service Before the Ban. This service allowed users to make their identities portable across social media networks (i.e., take your followers with you). The excerpt focuses on the end of “dignity culture,” or what I refer to in this book as “bourgeois values.” This excerpt is presented as a window into how we arrived at a place where “live and let live” is no longer culturally supported.
Legal protections against deplatforming
In the United States, consumers take for granted that no matter where they go, and no matter who they are, they will be attended to at a store or restaurant. There are broad legal and social protections that reinforce that presumption.
While objectionable from the perspective of strict civil liberties, one benefit of such antidiscrimination laws is that they provide social and economic cover for revenue-maximizing establishments to admit all customers, without having to defend their decision to let people into their store who belong to groups that others despise.
This legal framework is supported by broad cultural support for “dignity culture,” at least in the North. In contrast to “honor culture,” where stigma acts like a kind of communicable disease, in a dignity culture, the owner of a business suffers no loss of reputation by serving socially marginalized customers. Likewise, a reputational barrier tends to protect consumers from the stigma of buying products from a vendor who is considered to be a bad person. A person’s identity is considered an inviolable (sovereign) part of their human dignity; shame is attached to the individual’s actions, not to their essential being, and certainly not to the people who treat them as worthy of shopping at their stores.
In honor cultures, reputational barriers bleed over from customer to vendor, and vice versa. Diminishment and outright revocation of identity are used as tools of social control. Recently, the term “deplatforming” was coined to mean the suspension or banning of a user from a social media service, but this concept is hardly new. Over the years, deplatforming has taken a number of forms, from excommunication and exile to sitting shiva for a person who isn’t literally dead.
The results of deplatforming can be so negative that we have prohibited it among some identity providers (services that route you to someone). For example, monopoly communications providers are considered “common carriers.” These companies have “a special duty to offer their services to anyone on just and reasonable terms without discrimination.”
In exchange for giving up the right to discriminate, common carriers were given protection from being held responsible for the speech of their customers (in effect, the reputational barrier was made bilateral). Even more so than private companies, government identity providers are largely required to serve all clients: even felons are entitled to mail delivery, state IDs, and Social Security numbers.
Blurring of the reputational boundaries
While there are still strong legal protections against identity discrimination within certain contexts, the social commitment to hold the reputations of consumers and vendors as independent has eroded significantly. A combination of cultural forces, recent events, and the particularities of internet publishing has contributed to this erosion, which has had a significant impact on the security of online identities and the ability of users to publish freely on social media platforms.
This reputational blurring has been bilateral. For consumers, the willingness to buy from a company is now increasingly dependent on the company’s reputation, not just the quality or cost of the product. The rise of “green” and “eco” businesses is a reaction to demands that companies present themselves as environmentally responsible. Increased partisan intolerance has induced a reputational bifurcation of many businesses into being perceived as “on the side of” or “against” one of the two main political “tribes.” This bifurcation is sometimes encouraged by the companies themselves, by embracing certain causes or, even more dramatically, refusing to serve customers based on their political affiliations.
Social support for these acts of discrimination is often found in the ascendant “social justice” (SJ) movement and culture. This movement strongly embraces aspects of the honor-culture approach to reputation. The world is divided into classes of disadvantaged victims (who are to be treated as honorable, and in fact morally shielded by their status as victims) and privileged aggressors (who are stigmatized, along with anyone who sides with them). Perceived slights, even ones that might seem small, are derided as “not OK.” Any statement considered to be racist or hateful toward disadvantaged groups immediately brands the speaker as morally tainted. Even the slightest hint of bigotry can be enough to ruin a person’s reputation.
In this context, one of the things viewed as absolutely, positively “not OK” is to provide a platform for these “deplorables” and “dregs of society.” Allowing these people to speak, or even worse, inviting them to speak (in effect affirming their identities as legitimate participants in ideological debates), is seen as so harmful to disadvantaged groups that censoring them is more important than protecting principles like free speech and open dialogue.
The cultural push of the current SJ ethos is distinguished from traditional honor culture in that the threshold for victimization is much lower and does not require that the transgressions be intentional.
This new (or hybrid) form of honor culture represents the final collapse of reputational barriers between partners in commercial, and sometimes human, transactions. Even in honor cultures, the damned may be given charity or allowed do some business (under diminished circumstances) without harming the reputation of the other person. For example, slaves were allowed to shop, but they had to wait at the back of the line, and those of even lower status had to enter through the back door, hidden from view of the other customers.
In honor cultures, victimization leads to a diminishment of reputation. Restoring that reputation requires an evening of the score, in the form of violent revenge or an invitation to duel. But not every slight ends with bloodshed, in part because the possibility of escalation to this stage serves as a powerful incentive to find a less drastic resolution or to brush off the slight as unintentional or unimportant. Note that duels expose both the perceived transgressor and the victim to risk. No such bilateral jeopardy exists (yet) in the new SJ culture, which in part explains how quick the aggrieved are to call out perceived aggressors. All reputational risk falls on the person (or company) being called out. For the accuser, the worst consequence of making unsubstantiated or weak accusations is to have them ignored. In this context, accusations of bigotry against fellow users of a communications platform proliferate, and the pressure is on companies to respond (or else see their own reputation suffer).
The nature of the dominant platforms
To some extent, social media platforms are uniquely vulnerable to reputational collapse between themselves and their customers/consumers. Platforms, especially the very few dominant ones like Facebook, exist somewhere in the gray zone between common carriers (neutral service providers) and publishers (who exercise editorial judgment over content). In congressional testimony, CEO Mark Zuckerberg called Facebook a “technology company” that builds products and services for other people. This isn’t untrue, but it’s also the case that those services come with—and, by their nature, must come with—rules about who can post what and under which conditions, who is allowed to keep their identity within the system, and who will be expelled. They also come with algorithms to decide how newsfeeds should be ordered, which ads are allowed to be shown, and how those ads can be targeted. In other words, these technological products and services embed editorial decisions, which makes Facebook a publisher. And publishers shouldn’t be giving a platform to repugnant or devious users, should they?
If Zuckerberg would prefer that Facebook be viewed as a (neutral) service provider, the company hasn’t done itself any favors in recent years. To handle content moderation, it developed an extensive rulebook of allowed and forbidden content. The rules may be arbitrary (e.g., breastfeeding pics of humans feeding humans can stay up, but not humans breastfeeding animals, no matter what the context), but they were designed to be enforceable in a nearly automated way. More recently though, when the rules would have removed specific content that was deemed to be important or newsworthy, exceptions were made.
Once Facebook began caving to pressure over politically sensitive content, it opened the doors to increased lobbying over content policy, with the assumption that any specific content allowed (or disallowed) must be the result of alignment (or nonalignment) with the views of those in power within the company. Facebook had torn down the reputational wall between itself and the users it allowed on the platform.
This presumption of editorial influence has grown even stronger as platforms like Facebook appear to be banning people not for posting content that violates the rules (or, at least, not any more than what others post), but for holding views that fall outside the window of allowable opinion. At this point, anyone not banned appears to have the tacit approval of the platform itself. In essence, now that “deplorables” are being deplatformed, anyone not deplatformed must be considered OK by the service provider. From an SJ perspective, until all the awful people have had their identities revoked, the platform itself is tainted. The purge must continue until purity is achieved.
Putting platforms into play
Imagine that Facebook and other social media channels are like board games, no different from Monopoly or The Game of Life. Every player has an agenda: to accumulate followers, to push a political viewpoint, to get likes, to pick on the people they hate. Each version of this game has rule differences and its own culture. Facebook encourages the most active players of its game by giving them more exposure for their pages and posts. Twitter encourages combative dialogue that makes users feel compelled to monitor their feed and respond to attacks.
As with all games, the direct approach to winning is to outcompete the opposition. The indirect way is to bribe the refs or have the rules changed to favor you or your team. If a platform signals that it isn’t just a neutral arbiter of rules written in stone, the platform itself is put in play. This shifts activity from on the field to off the field. The game is now political, and participants begin to focus on lobbying the refs to have their opponents disqualified or in some way diminished. In the case of social media, this diminishment can take the form of shadow bans, revocation of verified-user checkmarks, or removal from lists of suggested people to follow.
In the case of Twitter, once it put itself into play by caving to political forces to ban certain high-profile users, CEO Jack Dorsey went from being a ref who refuses to remove a despised player like Alex Jones (no matter how much the crowd boos him) to a ref who invites only those players he personally likes to join the game. Once this shift in perception happened, the reputational damage to Dorsey became too strong to bear, and a reason was found to give Jones a red card and ban him from the field.