Today Jay Owens wrote a really good Twitter thread on the problems of blaming private social places like Facebook and WhatsApp groups for everything.
Which already explains so many of those problems but I want to focus on two specific sides of it. One of them is the fact that those who claim that private groups are causing the fake news/extremism/everything wrong with the internet are not aware of the privilege they’re living in. Thinking that we can fix everything if we make it public can easily traced back to early 2010s anti-privacy argument “I have nothing to hide.” Most of these people never been in a situation which they needed a safe and/or private space to talk and discuss about their world views and ideas and it clearly shows.
Also thinking that we can solve everything if all of these groups are public (which because of my MA thesis I read similar arguments a lot), means that we can track and analyze what everyone is talking and detect the ones causing the problem early. Which is not just a really bad remake of Minority Report but also taking the side of the surveillance capitalism and one of the main reasons behind these problems.
Which brings me back to the recent discussion in Turkey related to “evil social media”. As a tradition we’re now discussing once again how to control these platforms and people doing evil things online from the government’s perspective. Which boils down to several options such as:
- Track everything and everyone
- Make platforms delete everything government doesn’t like
- Ban all of them
- And my personal favorite (and this is real), make a law forcing everyone to enter these platforms with their national ID numbers.
If you’re one of those people who’s against the private channels and groups, you should think that these are all amazing ideas, except banning them. But most of the people writing those pieces would think these proposals are authoritarian, anti freedom of speech etc. Because that’s what they actually are.
So let me just ask, how do you think that making everything public will solve these problems you’re aiming to solve? Do you really think that all of these are happening just because it’s private, or what you really want is some authority to control everything people are doing online? If it’s the first one, you should do some actual research about those issues you’re dealing with and then start writing only after that. And if it’s the latter, thanks for helping many governments around the world to feel like they’re doing the right thing by surveilling and censoring their people all the time.
Aside from the fact that forcing every conversation into public and making it available to surveillance and censorship, this whole argument just dismissed many of the real reasons behind the current problems we’re facing online. I know those people will probably won’t change their minds or think about these issues in a more nuanced way because, like Jay said, no one wants to publish those. Who has time to think about the complex problems in a nuanced way when you can blame one thing and get the clicks.
There’s also another problem with this approach to private groups. Thinking that people only go to private places because they want somewhere to spread their “dark” ideas is just dismissed the problems platforms causing. Just think about how algorithmic timelines, forced interactions, surveillance based ads and economic models, context collapse and doomscrolling affects people.
While all of these happening, it’s more than normal for people to look for a place which they can have more control over. A Facebook group which includes only the people interested in a specific topic, WhatsApp groups for family/friends/neighbors, locking their social media accounts, returning to newsletters and blogs to have a conversation about the topics you want with only the people interested in it. Even Discord just recently changed their branding because there is a big wave of people who creates channels to talk about things other than gaming.
It’s clear that whatever is motivating people to be more private online is something much bigger than any scapegoating attempt we see. It’s also getting more and more clear that people want more control on their digital interactions and want private spaces to talk about things which they want to keep inside a smaller group. If people who can’t (or don’t want to) fully understand what is really going on will have the power to influence how to act on this, I don’t think anything good will come out of it.