Social media's arbitrary power should worry individuals and societies alike – Rest of World

September 9, 2022
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About a year ago, Instagram decided that I had misbehaved enough to block my account permanently. I have no idea why. The app informed me that I’d violated rules regarding spam and/or the buying of followers. 
At the time, I had a mighty following of about 400 friends and family. Not exactly follower-buying mega-influencer numbers. And, I used my account mainly to silently lurk as I stalked my friends’ and colleagues’ culinary stories, so very little probability on the spam front. 
I went through the motions, sent photos of myself holding up handwritten numbers as requested by the platform, but all to no avail. The account was lost. 
I’ve often heard of similar experiences from social media users and regulators across the world. But, for many, losing an account on a social media platform marks the end of an important source of revenue or represents an important political setback. This last one was so worrying to the government in Brazil that President Jair  Bolsonaro banned bans by social media late last year.
Our increasing social, cultural, and economic reliance on social media companies has highlighted the particular power that they have over our lives, with no real recourse for repeal or restitution.
In Latin America, the arbitrary power to ban, change terms and conditions, or demonetize content on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Instagram is often a result of these platforms’ scarce investment and attention to detail in the region. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western social media companies like Twitter were pressured to highlight which accounts were working for Russian media outlets. But freelance journalists from across Latin America were faced overnight with the label “media associated with the Russian government” for having contributed to outlets like Russia Today or Sputnik at some point in their lives. A few months prior, the man who would eventually become Peru’s president struggled to get the blue checkmark of verification on his Facebook account.
Hugo Miranda of the Fundación Internet Bolivia told me that governments, like Bolivia’s, have created entire cyber-police forces with a single Big Tech company, like Facebook, in mind. He said that when his country’s informal commerce sector migrated online, it did so almost exclusively onto Facebook.
This meant that Bolivian society was at the mercy of Meta’s, Facebook’s parent company, arbitrary decisions around terms and conditions. It also means that when the government tries to oversee issues as delicate as child pornography or the illegal traffic of drugs and people, Miranda said that the state has to plead with the company to get information — let alone achieve changes in the platform’s policies that may make people safer but would discourage them from using the platform as much. 

People insist that I should stop being such a Luddite and rejoin Instagram, but honestly, I feel slightly more free without an additional digital overlord surveilling my every move. It also gives me more time to hang out on Twitter.

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