It’s a place of permanent malaise, billions of strings of binary opinion that can polarize or unite and a marketplace for giant corporations and community entrepreneurs. The internet is a colossus and social networks have become the fuel of nearly every online interaction of some 3.6 billion users. Facebook, Instagram and twitter remain the most influential platforms and, on an accelerating curve since the Arab Spring and the Kardashians at its opposite, the absolute power that these platforms are able to wield is both frightening and exciting at the same time.
If you have ever read 1984, then the permanent ban of former US President Donald Trump off Twitter is a scary notion. Yesterday Trump existed, today, he is socially invisible and as irrelevant as an ox-wagon in online influence terms. In a recent statement, the platform confirmed that even should Trump stand for reelection, the ruling will hold firm. Since the storming of the Capitol earlier this year, social networks have also taken further steps to clamp down on various online interest groups and gatherings. We are moving toward a wholly moderated online life, but there are two sides to the coin. Trump is, or was, not just a president, he is, or was, an influencer.
Twitter is cracking down on brands and influencers to protect the public and ostensibly squeeze out better online behaviour from influencers using fake accounts and unrelated hashtags, inflated follower communities and the artificial propagation of advertising or commercial messaging. More than 70 000 accounts were suspended in January alone. Propagating content online by using a multitude of ponytail tactics with a legion of fake users is ultimately a direct attack on the credibility of any platform.
“Even though social media was invented to connect people to loved ones and share life experiences with friends, it has become a buzzing marketplace for a number of big and small businesses. Because not all these businesses have the promotional budget the big boys have, they come up with innovative ideas to get their content to potential buyers. Some of these methods go against all the platform rules and regulations and the people using these methods often don’t know any better,” says Lizzy van Niekerk, social media and influencer expert at Little Rabbit Digital.
Tara Turkington of Flow Communications agrees and believes much of the current problem, so to speak, can be laid at the door of influencers. “What we’re seeing here is Twitter doing some housekeeping and cracking down on people who have been breaking their rules. There is no rule about not using influencers; it’s just the quality of influencer work that’s in question.” For example, says Turkington, if an influencer or anyone else wants to tweet a funky ad, they can absolutely do that. If the influencer tries to grow your account or Twitter traffic to your account using follower churn and misleading promotions like using a popular hashtag and spammily promoting something unrelated to it, Twitter could well end up suspending that account she says. “Brands should be careful which influencers they choose to sign up with. Ideally, they should always seek influencers who promote content that aligns with what they stand for as a brand, so that the content comes across as authentic. It’s not much use for a brand to pay a travel influencer to promote beauty products, for instance.”
In South Africa, a lot of fake accounts continue to be isolated and suspended. The country has not been immune to fake news or social rabble rousing with the role of the Gupta / Bell Pottinger social media and state capture scandal, some of the consequences the country is still dealing with. “Fake accounts are used to spread propaganda and fake news and is most often only used to deceive people. It does not surprise me that a lot of fake accounts in SA have been closed as we have individuals and interest groups that are just as guilty for using them to inflate their tweets and promotions,” says van Niekerk.
Turkington adds that social media platforms came under immense public pressure during the Trump era to take more responsibility for the authenticity of content published. “Something they have long shied away from. The pressure is on for these platforms to exercise more scrutiny and that is likely why we are seeing swift action against accounts that appear to be gaming the system.”
People who intentionally start disruptive or upsetting conversations online, better known as trolls, have been around since newsgroups and forums dominated the internet, later followed by social media. Platforms are clamping down on them, too. “The temptation to say outrageous things when there is no perceived consequence seems to be strong in online communities,” says Turkington. “It is quite hard to identify a troll, because they will always use a fake handle, and still relatively easy to set up a fake account.” Van Niekerk adds that more scrutiny means Trolls will likely see their content reported and flagged more frequently by other users, and platforms will act more swiftly against their accounts. “The new policies make it easy to report or block people with negative views and the trolls are slowly being chased back to the bridges from which they came.”
What this all means for free speech is an eternal debate, but, best efforts to protect the masses may eventually result in the same kind of censorship that Marxist real-world nations have enjoyed. After-all, many social networks enjoy population larger than that of most countries, over which executives and shareholders govern.
Hein Kaiser is a seasoned journalist, broadcaster, producer, and marketing communication professional and has worked in a variety of markets, sectors, and countries. He presently hosts the 360 Brunch over weekends on Mix 93.8FM.