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Corinne Cath-Speth

Doctoral student at the Oxford Internet Institute.

Platform patricians and platform plebs: how social media favours the famous

In the spring of 2018, US celebrity Kim Kardashian uploaded a set of near nudes to her Instagram account to promote her new fragrance. The pictures were shocking, not for the skin shown but rather, for what they said about how content moderation rules on social media platforms are unequally enforced. Even though some of the pictures blurred particular body parts, it seems these platforms used a double standard. A regular user’s photos of the same nudity caliber drawing over 24,000 likes could have easily been banned. For the Instafamous, like Kim K, however, the photos remained.

Famous nudes, of course, are taken down occasionally. Yet, the famous have direct access to the individuals running social media platforms, whether through personal ties or their global reach. This is how celebrity culture shapes platform governance. But haven’t the famous always had disproportionate influence over politics? Certainly. But in the case of digital platforms there is, or rather was, an expectation set by the companies first-and-foremost that they would provide a new kind of politics.

Instagram is a photo sharing and social media platform, but as Nancy Baym shows in her recent book “Playing to the Crowd”, it is also used by bands, brands, and celebrities to engage with their audience. Baym focuses on the labour that goes into this process for the famous and their fans. But how can we address the moderation labour performed by the platforms, that treat the famous more equal than others, because they have disparate access to company leadership? Examples abound, from minor design concerns to major societal discussions.

Consider for instance this tweet by Kim K where she mentions talking to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey at her husband’s birthday about creating an edit button for Twitter. Likewise, American actor Seth Rogan has been DM-ing Dorsey to argue against allowing white supremacists on Twitter. He seemingly got a direct response from the CEO. Chuck Todd, an American TV journalist, indicated that after taking a step back from Twitter they reached out to ask him, and other “power users”, what they needed to do to make their platform better. Katie Vigos, the nurse behind the popular Instagram community “the empower birth project”was able to change the nudity policy regarding birth photos through sustained advocacy that was aided by her direct connections to Instagram’s public policy team. Likewise, other well-known actors and journalists have been able to get these companies to respond with product changes. Such access to these “new governors”, as legal expert Kate Klonick calls them, is not possible for most of us.

The inverse also occurs. When regular users expressed concerns about tracking features that facilitated intimate partner violence, SnapChat barely flinched. But when celebrity singer Rihanna called out SnapChat for making an advertisement that used her image to make light of domestic violence and their stocks crashed, the platform immediately apologised and reached out to the American National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) for expert advice.

The issue is not just about privatised regulation of online speech. It is the logic of culturally sanctioned inequality where a blue checkmark guides who gets direct access to the companies that define who can speak online, when, and how. This dynamic is problematic for three compounding reasons. First, embedding tacit cultural norms, based on celebrating celebrity status, into content moderation practices clearly creates a tiered internet of platform patricians and platform plebs. Second, such differential treatment of content is not a bug or oversight, but at the heart of online moderation and, by extension, platform governance. Gillespie covers this in detail in his recent work on internet custodians. Third, this dynamic largely takes place outside of the current debates on content moderation policies and their flaws.

The impact of celebrity access is unsurprising when seen against the backdrop of the Silicon Valley culture of radical individualism and status, captured in the works of scholars like Fred Turner and Alice Marwick. Nor is it surprising given that the internet’s business model is prefaced on capturing attention, selling ads, and curating content. The famous simply make these platforms more money. In fact, companies like Facebook and Twitter have specific policies around ‘newsworthiness’ – through which they provide exceptions to some of their rules for public figures. In a year characterised by a cascade of social media scandals it is easy to overlook how these everyday cultural dynamics influence platform governance. It raises a set of hard, yet increasingly familiar, questions: how comfortable are we curating online speech by clicks? Expression by eyeballs? Association by A-list status? But perhaps more importantly, what does it do to average users’ expectations of accountability and redress in an increasingly digitally mediated world?

Over the past months, various platforms have taken important measures to increase accountability. They added more detail to their community standards, improved transparency reports, and instituted better appeal mechanisms. These are all suggestions that have been made by academics, regulators, and civil society organisations for some time. These are important steps. Yet, there are many outstanding questions regarding how different concerns are balanced when taking down content (does it concern a lay-bum or a famous-bum, for instance) and how appeal mechanisms work. When celebrity status shapes platform governance, the least these social media giants could do is apply their rules such that we can all keep up with the Kardashians.

Corinne Cath-Speth is a doctoral student at the Oxford Internet Institute. Her research focuses on the politics and ethics of internet governance and the management of the internet’s infrastructure.