Ye's (Kanye West's) recent decision to buy Parler is just one of a few troubling recent news items related to the state of our information networks, and the power wielded online by other states and private citizens over our supposed democracies.
It’s been a “pick your poison” week for problems with our information networks: from the world’s richest person using Twitter for complex foreign policy, to a prominent US musician laying claim to a far-right social media platform, to the alarm continuing to sound on US midterm misinformation circulating on poorly regulated China-based chat apps.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the specifics of any one online issue, there’s a broader trend at work here, with respect to the digital fragmentation of our info silos. And joined with the increasing use of major public platforms by extremely wealthy citizens to bypass elected governments and involve themselves overtly in state affairs? Well, it all raises serious questions about the state of our democracies.
So let’s dive into some of those specifics—but keep the bigger issues at the fore:
Debating the future of Starlink on Twitter
On October 14 Elon Musk, who recently used Twitter to propose that Ukraine officially cede territory to Russia to end the war, and that Taiwan accept a different governing arrangement with China, used the social media platform to discuss doubts about ongoing SpaceX funding to Starlink, the satellite service that has helped the Ukrainian military stay connected amid Russian destruction of local telecommunications infrastructure, and get its messaging out to the rest of the world.
The problem is actually a little messier than most reporting covered: SpaceX sent a request to the Pentagon on September 8, outlining financial needs and potential limitations to the private company’s ability to answer future Ukrainian military requests. CNN covered that request in an October 13 exclusive, which also did due diligence in highlighting the fact that SpaceX has absolutely been supported by national governments in many of its war costs.
This differs, though, from the framing Musk provided in an October 14 tweet about SpaceX funding. Musk’s online comments were further exacerbated by his very poor choice to joke about SpaceX’s withdrawal of war-time funding as a reply to a Ukrainian ambassador’s fury over Musk’s foreign policy proposal for the war on whole. On October 17, after all that online nonsense and the media storm it created, Musk tweeted that SpaceX has now withdrawn its request for more funding. But enough damage has already been done by the world’s richest person twice having sided with countries whose interests are often opposed to the US’s, in online discourse that also emphasizes his power to destabilize countries like Ukraine at will.
And this is all before he gains direct control over Twitter (if pre-sale investigations go through): a platform Musk has claimed is too left-leaning, despite a 2021 audit finding a much stronger right-leaning bias in terms of amplified platform content to date.
Midterm disinformation on China-based apps
Yesterday, Wired‘s Jennifer Conrad then offered perhaps the deepest dive yet into a problem under-reported in the lead-up to US midterms: misinformation campaigns on WeChat and other China-based social media platforms, which have already played a role in a few recent US school-board decisions. Because these group-chat apps aren’t crawled by Google or indexed by services like CrowdTangle (which are supposed to help monitor social media for inappropriate and blatantly false content), even formal US laws against misinformation can’t always be enforced.
Info silos like these, where most conversation happens in languages other than English, are espcially difficult to integrate into broader cultural discourse. But fuller knowledge integration and collaboration, across a range of communities and demographics, is exactly what a better-functioning democracy requires.
Thankfully, efforts are being made to counteract some of the spread of fake news. On October 12, Reuters launched two new fact-checking channels to combat a similar problem among Spanish-language users of WhatsApp, notoriously used during the 2020 election as a site of aggressive disinformation campaigns (and also, as a place where pandemic hoaxes spread unchecked).
And yet another billionaire takes the stage
But it was Ye (better known as Kanye West) who really flooded news this week, with his decision to buy Parler, a radical-right social media platform that served as a staging ground for January 6, 2021 insurrectionism. Ye was recently restricted from Twitter and Instagram for antisemitic posts and other inflammatory remarks. Parler is one of a few platforms, along with Truth Social (Donald Trump’s venture), Gettr (owned by former-Trump-aide Jason Miller), and Rumble (funded by Peter Thiel and J.D. Vance) that have generated interest as microblogging forums where the alt-right can continue to push US conservatism into more extreme directions.
Indeed, one key point here is that many of these newer platforms are discussed in mainstream news as “conservative” social media. This is a dangerous choice, because it tacitly allows major tech monopolies like Meta and Twitter to be read as non-conservative, and thus contributes to normalizing far-right radicalism as the heir apparent to a much wider school of political thought. Moreover, this framing does not accord with what we already know about the pre-existing right-wing bias on networks like Facebook/Meta and Twitter. There is no excuse for mainstream media to be accepting the alt-right’s terminology at face value.
So where does that leave us? With very few digital forums, unfortunately, in which we can expect effective checks-and-balances against mounting disinformation campaigns, or otherwise build more collaborative and bipartisan networks for meaningful democratic discourse. CNN and Reuters are to be commended, respectively, for their recent work to de-tangle some of the inaccurate information related to the private control of key sociopolitical infrastructure—but it’s not enough.
What will be?