Arthur and the Giant Bitch

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Four days ago, I threatened to kill James Bond. Twitter banned me for it.

Or at least that’s what it might seem like. What really happened was this post from one of my favourite accounts:

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I commented, and my account was quickly suspended for going against Twitter standards. I immediately appealed this determination:

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Clearly, the Twitter algorithms are made to detect the word “die” followed by a name and assume that the poster is either threatening to kill or at least wishing someone death, neither being a nice thing to do. Hence the suspension.

But sometimes things are not what they seem to a computer. I stand by the intent – and the meaning, as clear to any living thing as opposed to a string of code – that “Die James Bond, Die” would be an excellent title for perhaps the last 007 movie ever.

Twitter’s adjudication must be as busy as the Supreme Court’s, and so, four days (as I mentioned before) on, there has been no decision either way, and in the meantime I cannot post or even see my account. Being a stubborn prick, too, I have resisted the option to regain the access by simply deleting my comment. After all, I haven’t done anything wrong.

Meanwhile, for the past four weeks, Facebook has been shadow banning my ads on its free Marketplace platform.

What appears to have started the fracas is my action of updating photos in an ad offering books for sale. I decided to update the photos, since many among the selection have already sold and I didn’t want people wasting time contacting me to buy titles no longer available. A few minutes after I deleted the old photos and uploaded the new ones, I discovered that my ad was banned for supposedly breaching the Marketplace regulations. These are quite explicit but also quite narrow, prohibiting sale of certain categories of goods (weapons, drugs, animals, etc.), offering services, deceptive behaviour and so on. As my ad clearly did not offend any prohibition, I appealed. Within 24 hours, whoever reviews the original – I assume also algorithmic – decisions, agreed and restored my ad.

The problem was, all of a sudden, my updated ad stopped being viewed by potential buyers browsing Marketplace. Thinking there was some glitch, I deleted the updated ad and reposted its contents as a new ad. Nothing changed. In fact, ever since then, my ads get no exposure. Where previously all my ads attracted from 200 to 1000 pairs of eyes over periods of a week or two, resulting in numerous inquires, now the number is in single figures – essentially my visits to the ad to check the numbers. While the ads are all “active” (i.e. they have been approved and listed in a particular category), they are not being displayed to Marketplace users.

Coincidence? Maybe. But equally it seems like some very human passive aggression: yeah, you were right and our algorithm was wrong, but FU anyway.

The bigger problem is that there are zillions of such coincidences that now swirl around the internet giants like Facebook, Google (including YouTube), Amazon, and a lesser host of Twitter, Snapchat, PayPal and others (with a dash of Apple and Microsoft in a slightly different, but equally impactful way). A lot of it is connected with politics and political expression, but – as my two examples show – not all. My whinges might be very minor too, but they are indicative of the challenge that these super companies pose to consumers and institutions.

I remain broadly sympathetic to the free market argument that competition will, in time, cure any problems that business activity throws up from time to time, such as market domination or underhand practices. The mighty will be brought down low, new players will offer new products, consumer preferences will change, creative (or destructive) equilibrium will be restored. We can all argue, of course, to what extent free market and free competition exist in any particular setting at any particular time. If “real socialism” has never been tried, “real free market” (as opposed to capitalism, which is not necessarily the same thing) might be equally rare in practice. It is certainly true that comparing the lists of top 50 biggest companies one hundred, 50, 20 years ago and today will indicate a lot of economic change, but might not tell us very much about the reasons for that change, which can be quite complex.

The tech giants might not be historically unique as far as their size and power are concerned, but they’re not the norm either. They are not exactly monopolists, but their domination of their particular sections of the market elevates them from the domain of mere companies to something akin to public utilities. Google, Facebook and YouTube, for example, account for 80 per cent of digital advertising in Australia. There are alternatives to all these providers but they are so tiny by comparison as to defeat their main purpose for many users, which is to provide the biggest possible reach and exposure to the world. If you get demonetised or banned by YouTube, other video-sharing platforms can give you only a fraction of the traffic and the eyeballs, which impoverishes you literally and the internet users metaphorically, since they are now less likely to be exposed to the broad range of content. There are other social networks, but only Facebook has “everyone” on it, including your grandma, school friend from primary, and that couple you’ve met on the trip to Spain. Sure, if you get banned from Facebook, you can still try to keep in touch with all these people via many separate channels but it’s so much more difficult, disjointed and time consuming. For that same reason, Facebook’s Marketplace has a much better reach than other platforms that are focused exclusively on online ads. If Marketplace continues to shadow ban me, I can try Craigslist or Gumtree or Locanto, but – certainly in the categories I’m interested in – they all have significantly smaller audiences.

The traditional response to bad customer experience has been “try somebody/something else”. You don’t like Facebook – or Facebook doesn’t like you? Try another similar service. But I’m not sure if most of my friends would be able to name even one alternative to FB, and the chances they are on it are even slimmer. So telling people to stop whining and use an alternative to the tech giants is akin to telling someone “Oh, you can’t have a mobile (cell) phone? So what, no one is stopping you from writing a letter!” It’s the same but different. This is the consequence of the domination of the internet by the Googles and the Facebooks. And the internet now does play an essential role – for better or worse – in our lives and work. Hence the comparison to public utilities. Facebook might not be quite like electricity or running water, but it’s very close to, say, phone service. Yes, you can opt for another social network, but compared to Facebook this would be like a phone company that only makes it possible for you to contact one in twenty people instead of just about everyone, and even then maybe only once a week, at a time predetermined by the provider. It’s a service of sorts, but so inferior in every way to the main game in town as to be incomparable.

I’m not offering any solution to this problem. Many, both on the left and the right, are increasingly of a mind that, like Standard Oil of more than a century ago, the tech behemoths of today need to be broken down into smaller and less powerful units. That could solve some problems but won’t solve many others. Like mine, for example; a somehow “smaller” Twitter and Facebook can still be unresponsive and unaccountable. And as we know from other areas of economy, greater involvement and control by the supposedly impartial government does not guarantee better outcomes either. Big government, like big business, is run by human beings who, quite apart from their own characteristics as individuals, work within a particular culture, which has its own values, agendas and preferences. Government is a monopolist too in many ways, and for all the politics, is not necessarily responsive and accountable either.

My Twitter is no great loss – hardly anyone follows me, and not being able to see my newsfeed I’m probably calmer and happier. As for the Marketplace and the books, for a hobby that’s on a brink of graduating to a joyful and satisfying microbusiness, Facebook’s shadow banning pretty much means death. Neither travail is a big deal in the greater scheme of things. But they all add up, for me and for many others, until “No Time To Die” becomes “A View To A Kill”.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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