The week social media changed its mind

Fully Charged

Hey all, it's Kurt. Last week I wrote about Parler, the "free speech" social network that many well-known conservatives are joining so they can say whatever they want online. It's been described as an alternative to Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc., which have long lists of rules and guidelines about what people are allowed to post. But thanks to an unprecedented wave of social media crackdowns on toxic content in recent days, Parler may soon be labeled as an alternative to Alphabet Inc.'s YouTube, as well. And Reddit Inc. And Twitch.

A number of the largest digital platforms made major, public shows of enforcing their rules this week, and many of those newfound violators are supporters of Donald Trump—or the president himself.  

Reddit banned 2,000 online discussion pages for violating its hate speech policies, including r/The_Donald, known to be a major hub of discussion for Trump supporters. Inc.-owned Twitch temporarily suspended the president's account for re-posting a video from 2016 in which he called Mexicans "rapists," and Facebook banned hundreds of accounts and pages linked to the far-right Boogaloo movement. YouTube, meanwhile, dismantled six channels that have promoted white supremacy, including one run by the former grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, David Duke.

Major enforcements like this aren't altogether unheard of—Parler's existence is proof of that. But the action by almost all of the major players in the same week was certainly notable. Why are all these services, which have argued for years that they are neutral platforms for all voices, suddenly laying down the law?

It comes back to Twitter and Facebook. When Twitter first flagged tweets from Trump as misleading in late May, and then two days later labeled another one of his tweets for glorifying violence, the company opened a door that online platforms may never be able to close. After years of limited moderation, suddenly Twitter proved that it was not only possible to challenge the president of the United States when he violated the rules, but that doing so wouldn't crush the company's business. Twitter has now flagged multiple posts from Trump, the company still makes money, and the President still pushes out tweets.

In fact, the business risk of punishing the president or his followers now feels smaller than the risk of not doing anything. When Mark Zuckerberg decided that the same posts from Trump were not a violation of Facebook's rules, employees revolted, philanthropic partners pushed back, and advertisers started to boycott the platform en masse. No other internet company wants to deal with the kind of backlash Facebook is currently getting. Zuckerberg, who has pointed to free speech as his reasoning for leaving Trump's posts untouched, has unintentionally reasserted himself as tech's greatest villain.

Online platforms claim to be open forums for all voices and opinions, but that neutrality has fallen apart in the face of hate speech, racism and posts that incite violence. The rules are changing alongside a nationwide discussion about race and inequality. Big internet companies are increasingly finding that best the way to avoid a fight is to go on the offensive. Kurt Wagner

If you read one thing

Here's the story of one of Massachusetts's greatest cat burglars and his greatest heist: stealing more than two dozen Super Bowl rings belonging to players from the New York Giants. 

And here's what you need to know in global technology news

CEOs from Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple will testify before a congressional antitrust committee. 

Facebook is dealing with another user privacy issue. This time, the company shared personal user data with outside developers for longer than had said it would. 

Apple is closing even more stores because Covid-19 cases are spiking across the U.S. It has now re-closed 77 stores that had previously been re-opened following the initial wave of virus cases. 

This newsletter will be off on Friday for the U.S. holiday. Enjoy the long weekend.


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