Ctrl: Private Companies Should Not Be the Arbiters of Truth

If you read any tech news at all over the last few months, sensationalist headlines stating “Zuckerberg Says Holocaust Deniers Are Not Intentionally Misleading” may have jumped out to you. While I’m usually the first to jump on criticism of Zuckerberg and Facebook’s monopolistic tendencies (a story for another time), in this case I’ll actually give Zuckerberg the benefit of the doubt.

This isn’t a story about Facebook, though. Zuckerberg’s recent media shaming fits into the greater picture of a question currently plaguing the tech industry: when a user or creator posts something to a platform, is the platform then responsible for the content of the post and the user’s own character?

There are many examples of this, but we’ll start with Spotify. Spotify is different from Facebook in the sense that content on it is at least somewhat controlled, meaning my extended family isn’t able to post awful memes to it. That being said, Spotify isn’t generating the music that’s on it, but it instead is serving as a platform where creators can host and users can listen. So when Spotify allows a creator to host their music, are they responsible for enabling problematic creators? Consider known abusers like R. Kelly and XXXTentacion – how should we feel about the fact that Spotify is giving them a platform and enabling their careers?

Whatever our opinions on this are, it became clear that Spotify was cognizant of this moral dilemma when it declared it would remove music from artists that espoused “Hateful Conduct” from Spotify playlists. Note that this does not mean the artists were completely removed from Spotify, but rather they would no longer be included in playlists specifically curated by Spotify –  a punishment that hardly seems particularly severe.

The backlash towards this policy started coming in as soon as it was announced. Critics questioned how Spotify would determine when an artist had crossed their moral threshold, and why Spotify should be entrusted with this moral authority. The backlash was so severe that even massive artists like Kendrick Lamar threatened to pull their music from the platform. Thus, the Hateful Conduct Policy ended less than a month after it began. Spotify had taken the first bold step into the quagmire of dealing with problematic, hateful content, and was rewarded for such boldness with resounding reproach. The community had spoken, and even such a small step was too far.

At the same time as Spotify was receiving this painfully clear lesson, Steam (the world’s largest digital game distribution platform) had experienced almost the complete opposite. After facing backlash for removing a game that let you play as a school shooter, earning points by killing students, Valve (the company behind Steam) made the even bolder choice of washing its hands of all responsibility and simply allowing any and all games on the platform, with the exception of things that were illegal. While some welcomed this unrestricted freedom, Valve received relentless criticism suggesting it had given up on dealing with a problem that belonged squarely to them and was simply abdicating from its responsibilities.

The lesson that had appeared clear in the Spotify case suddenly became not so clear. A nearly insignificant foray into content restriction by Spotify was too much, but no restrictions on Steam was unthinkably irresponsible. Since these events unfolded, I’ve been left wondering if there’s any right answer to this question.

I’m not the only one who’s put this together. Zuckerberg’s hesitation to unilaterally declare bans for all Holocaust deniers and flat earthers actually makes a lot of sense in this context. I’ll even go far as to say that not only should we go easy on him this time, but we should also be ecstatic that a private corporation is actively refusing to essentially become the arbiter of truth in deciding what views are legitimate and which ones aren’t.

So whose responsibility is it anyways to ensure hateful content isn’t legitimized and spread on online platforms? I guess to some extent I’d say companies can’t totally wash their hands of all responsibility, but I also think most of the responsibility should be placed on us, as consumers, to act responsibly.

I’d like to believe that we as a society are responsible enough to collectively recognize blatantly false and problematic content. We should simply choose to not engage with it without needing that content to be hidden from us. It’s far more powerful to show a hateful voice that no one cares to listen to than it is to forcibly silence that voice.

Contact Caio Brighenti at [email protected].