Following closely in the footsteps of Rebecca Mackinnon and Shoshana Zuboff, Jillian York in her interesting, upcoming and provocative work, “Silicon Values”, distills the various anomalies involved in “content moderation” that is practiced (or abdicated) by the giants of technology such as Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Ms. York brings to bear her formidable experience with and exposure to content moderation and platform intricacies in alluding to various hits and misses that both distinguish and tarnish Big Tech. A writing style that is bereft of pretentiousness and hesitancy makes Silicon Values a riveting read.
Ms. York bemoans the fact that the most aspired for and valued attribute, in the form of freedom of speech is controlled and curbed by a handful of gargantuan personalities striding the very pinnacle of Big Tech and whose actions are influenced by and beholden to powerful political connections, financial prospects and influential lobbying. Tweets and posts of influential and award winning activists such as Wael Abbas, that not just expose, but also educate the people about police brutality and other abuses in Egypt, are thus take down by the social media sites after succumbing to intense ‘back room’ pressure exerted by either the concerned Government or people wielding power. These actions resorted to by the social media sites go against the very grain of freedom of expression, a fundamental right that has been recognised from time immemorial. As Ms. York educates her readers, isegoria, a concept that allowed all male citizens in Athens, to address the democratic assembly irrespective of the fact as to whether such citizens were rich or poor, was given total prominence. The only lacuna here being the disservice meted out to women.
Ms. York although chastising all the social media sites, reserves her ire for Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. The company has content moderation staff spread across three tiers. The staff at the lowest level, namely Tier 3, have a thankless task. They are forced to spend entire days viewing gruesome imagery and making instantaneous decisions to take down or leave in place a post. With a meagre paycheck totaling US$28,800 per annum and as pitiful as US$6 a day in India, these employees receive negligible to no training not to mention an absolute lack of mental health support. This has the unfortunate consequence of posts of import and gravity being mistakenly taken down.
In order to minimize such acts and to preserve the basic ethos of human rights across the globe, the Global Network Initiative (“GNI”) was incorporated. Yahoo!, along with Google and Microsoft were the founding members and a bevy of NGOs, academic institutions and shareholder groups joined the organisation. However, as Ms. York illustrates, a reliance on a multi-stakeholder model has rendered GNI, more or less, ineffective. Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter, then joined together to form the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (“GIFCT”). The objective of GIFCT was “disrupting terrorist abuse of members’ digital platforms.” Due to a deficiency in the definitions of the word terrorism etc, the work of GIFCT has also left a lot to be desired.
Ms. York also highlights other notable perils of the content moderation evil such as the takedown of posts by sex workers following the promulgations of the SESTA and FOSTA acts by the United States Government. Many of these sex workers who were reliant on their connections formed across the online network for information on client screening and other safety measures found themselves in the lurch. Another area of concern is technology assisted content moderation. Using tools of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Big Tech attempts content moderation, but sometimes with hilarious outcomes. Thus, the residents of the English town of Scunthorpe find their accounts taken down or even refused registration because the word lying between the alphabets S and h represents a common profanity. London’s Horniman Museum found its own spam filters blocking it since the filters perceived “Horniman” as akin to “horny man.” Another problem innate with content moderation is lack of expertise with regional languages/vernacular. Luganda the most widely spoken language in Uganda with more than 8 million users hardly finds content moderation experts, proficient to analyse acceptable and offensive posts.
Similarly, there seem to be divergent standards for allowing and rejecting “hate speech” and exhortations to violence. This is where Ms. York’s book is a huge let down. Her concentration seems to be so fixated only on the misdeeds and misguided philosophies of the extreme right, that a person who is unaware of her stellar credentials might be forgiven for believing her to be an integral part of a cabalistic left wing group. Whether it be waxing eloquent on the consequences of Brandenburg v Ohio decision, the misplaced rants of Donald Trump, or the “Hindutva” extremism in India, Ms. York seems to harbour an obtuse illusion that violence is the sole preserve of the right. Hence there is no reference to the merciless and systematic killing (and not just persecution) of the minorities in Pakistan, the planned elimination of right wing campaigners by the Left Government in the Indian state of West Bengal and a myriad other relevant scenarios.
On the whole, Silicon Values in an invigorating, insightful and incisive distillation of the surveillance imposed upon free speech by the bastion that is Big Tech in the digital world.
(“Silicon Values” will be released by Verso Books (US) on the 2nd of March 2021)