Almost two weeks on from the storming of the US Capitol it’s becoming plainer that the most substantive changes to our political and public spheres are brewing not in Congress but on the internet.
First, let’s be clear: Twitter had to act against Trump. By deleting his account, it shut down a large part of his ability to provoke civil unrest. Trump has not been unfairly ‘censored’ and free speech does not give someone the right to stoke violence and insurrection: either in principle or in law.
The wider ethical and even philosophical ramifications of gagging the leader of the free world are a different story. Angela Merkel called the ban ‘problematic’ and even Twitter’s CEO acknowledged the problems inherent in a handful of tech bosses having the ability to decide who does and does not have a voice on the internet. They’re not wrong.
But I want to discuss the narrower, practical ramifications. The social media ban will help to silence Trump (as it did Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones) but at what cost? I watch online spaces and believe it’s putting in motion a chain of events that could empower society’s most extreme elements. Trump’s social media ban has begun a rapid flow of resources, brains and attention toward creating something unmanageable, and therefore terrifying: decentralised, encrypted vertical versions of Facebook or Twitter. Social media communities free not just of moderation but of oversight.
We must be clear on what this means. ‘Alternative’ sites and messaging apps like Parler and Telegram already exist, and they are encrypted and free from content moderation. But they are not decentralised. They still rely on the architecture of Big Tech through the Apple App store or the cloud hosting service, Amazon Web Services (AWS). When Amazon removed Parler from AWS on 10 January, it effectively booted the platform off the public internet. Even if you’ve downloaded the app it won’t work anymore because it can’t communicate with the Parler servers on AWS.
This move showed everyone from Trumpists to QAnon supporters to Nazis that private companies own the internet’s infrastructure, and they will do what they want with it. Now the talk is about building platforms free from Big Tech’s centripetal powers, and its accompanying oversight. Decentralised, vertical social media platforms have always been the ideal habitat for criminals and terrorists. But they had neither the time nor the personnel nor resources to build them. But now millions are enraged. And make no mistake: within those millions are the people with the resources and time to make that happen.
Louis Elton, social media researcher and strategist, explains how this works. ‘Twitter and Parler are like spiders,’ he says.
‘They have a central body supported by various “legs” – the app store and AWS – which if you chop off, kill it. However, an open source, decentralised social media system like, say, Mastodon supports various social networks that are like starfish. All the data produced through Mastodon’s infrastructure is distributed across thousands of servers and websites. The plug can’t be pulled. If you chop a starfish’s leg off, it grows back – and the severed leg can even become a new starfish. You can never really kill it.’
It’s important to keep all this in perspective. 99.9 per cent of people who migrate to these platforms will just find another place to be mad. But two – serious issues – arise. First, unfettered by moderation and the correcting impulses of wider society, online madness can morph into offline violence. Second, and most chilling: the 0.1 per cent that is Isis and al-Qaeda and Stormfront will have the decentralised platforms they have always craved to more effectively operate. Right now, Isis makes do with the encrypted messaging app Telegram (which, by the way, says it has added 72 million new users in the last 72 hours alone). Soon Isis may have somewhere much safer in which to recruit and organise and plot. And Big Tech won’t kick up a fuss: now they can wash their hands of it all. For the rest of us, though: the danger is merely deflected somewhere more dangerous.
To end with a metaphor: if the internet’s disaffected are now all lined up on deck in an ocean liner, sailing angrily but purposefully toward their own island paradise of internet freedom, lurking in the dinghies below are the jihadists and human traffickers and paedophiles, content in the knowledge that they will soon have far greater capabilities with which to pursue their own far more violent and dangerous ends.
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