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Fragmented and humbled: How social media could emerge from the post-election crisis

DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images

The US Capitol riot and its aftermath created a moment of crisis and upheaval that has Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms facing existential questions about the massive power they hold in American civic life.

Across the political and legal spectrums, people are calling for changes in the way the industry operates. The companies themselves are wrestling with the moment, in which an insurrection largely organized online led to widespread revocations of a sitting president’s ability to communicate. And experts say these events could have a profound impact on what the industry looks like in the future.

Social platforms have for years been at the center of debates over online privacy, misinformation, freedom of speech, and harassment. Now, with the United States having faced the greatest threat to its political stability in generations, the companies are under unprecedented pressure from users, policy makers, and advertisers. And they will have to rethink how they balance business interests with social responsibilities.

The events of the past few weeks “could be an ugly path that might get us toward a very different media environment,” said Ethan Zuckerman, a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor who has been working on ways to better orient social media toward civic conversation and public benefit.


Indeed, the decision by major tech platforms to restrict Donald Trump and his followers could be a historic turning point. Twitter deactivated Trump’s account permanently, while Facebook banned him indefinitely. Apple, Amazon, and Google — tech giants whose reach goes beyond social media — have taken steps to throttle right-wing extremist content.

What happens next could be an opportunity to improve the way billions of people around the world connect with each other, discover new interests, follow the news, and engage with their governments. But it could also be the start of an even darker turn, accelerating the retrenchment of likeminded people into private digital spaces dominated by extreme attitudes and conspiracy theories.


Users who are loyal to Trump — or those who have also been banned — could continue their flight to other platforms with more permissive policies.

Gab, which has marketed itself to Trump supporters, said earlier this month that it had gained 1.7 million users over four days. Other platforms gathering new clients include Signal and Telegram, messaging services already used by individuals and groups with different ideologies around the world, as well as a growing list of lesser-known platforms, such as Rumble, MeWe, and CloutHub.

“Censorship generally sends the message that the person you’re censoring has something important to say and we’re afraid of it being heard,” said Sarah A. Downey, operating partner at the Boston venture capital firm Accomplice. “So you throw more fuel on the fire and you martyr someone or something when you try to shut it up.”

She worries that overreach by the dominant platforms is going to leave a vast swath of people with no trusted place to have normal conversations, talk to friends and relatives, and keep up on current events.

“Most people are just trying to have a normal experience online,” Downey said. “Unfortunately, having these separate facilities and separate platforms is going to make people more extreme. People are just talking past each other, and now they’re not even on the same platform.”

But the fragmentation of social media could also be an opportunity for richer discourse. Facebook, above all, has come to dominate the space, and some observers believe its scale has meant that it can crush, crowd out, or acquire many competitors who might otherwise reimagine how people connect online.


Zuckerman, who leads the UMass Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure, envisions a world in which people create and participate in many different and specialized social networks where users set their own standards and make their own transparent rules about who can post and what should be discussed.

Rather than logging into Facebook, say, a user might pull up an overarching social media browser that shows them updates from a network dedicated to their municipal government, a network of parents from a youth soccer league, and a network of photography enthusiasts who went to the same college. Facebook might be on the browser too, as a catch-all space or a way to keep up with relatives and old friends.

Though services such as Facebook and Reddit offer some of the capabilities Zuckerman describes, these new networks would put full control in the hands of the users who would benefit. If such a change seems drastic and idealistic, he notes that the Internet landscape has shifted dramatically before. Anyone remember when Yahoo dominated the Web?

“What I want people to understand is that there’s no law of physics nor is there any act of god that says Facebook has to dominate social media,” Zuckerman said.

Some advocates have pushed for taxes on targeted advertising, which could both discourage the dominant business model for social media companies and provide revenue to support experimentation in the field.


Twitter, for its part, is supporting another effort, called Bluesky, that would create a more open standard for social media that anyone can use to innovate — and potentially compete with its services.

The discussion over the future of social media has been playing out amid the fraught transition of power in Washington, where Democrats have taken control of Congress and the White House. That means government oversight and reform could be a major driver of change. One likely area is user privacy, which is getting a fresh look after recent events.

Dipayan Ghosh, a former adviser to the Obama administration and to Facebook who now is a leader of Harvard’s Digital Platforms & Democracy Project, said the refusal of platforms such as Facebook to share sufficient information about how they target content and advertisements makes it hard for users to understand how their data are being collected and deployed.

It also makes the platforms less accountable, he said, and makes it harder for rivals to create competitive products.

“Really, it’s this data collection and algorithmic deployment on an opaque, sophisticated basis that’s pushing a lot of the problems in society,” Ghosh said.

The targeting of content to emphasize user engagement on services including YouTube has also been blamed for contributing to radicalization, though the Google-owned platform has said it is working to minimize the threat.


Ghosh believes privacy reforms, such as requiring users to affirmatively agree to all data collection, might make the services feel less individualized, as they did in the earlier days of social media, when posts were generally arranged chronologically and content promoted based on broad popularity rather than individual niche.

Companies such as Facebook would be less profitable, Ghosh said, but he believes they could still make money and be better corporate citizens.

“I believe it would be for the better, because it would yield a social media that we would know and trust and have pushed for ourselves, rather than something over which we are at the whims of the company,” he said.

And the pressure isn’t coming just from users and the government. Advertisers, who are critical to social networks’ bottom lines, are becoming frustrated, as well.

Katerina Sudit, chief media officer at Hill Holliday and its media arm Trilia, said it is becoming less clear that the benefits of targeted advertising on social media are worth the risks.

The tools that platforms use to tell advertisers where and how an ad will appear are not always sufficient, she said.

Last summer, several big advertisers joined an advertising boycott of Facebook, in an attempt to push the company to take more forceful steps against the spread of hate online. If things don’t change, Sudit said, advertisers may take more drastic steps.

“That is our strongest point of leverage currently,” she said. “If you cannot come to the table in a fundamentally transparent and accountable way, we cannot take the risk as advertisers of continuing to do business with you,” she said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.