Parler’s Pains Highlight Big Tech’s Content Moderation Conundrum

Yinchen Niu/Variety Intelligence Platform

The punishments Big Tech is doling out for flouting its content policies are truly heating up.

Twitter actually went through with a permanent Trump suspension last week due to concerns his tweets would incite further violence, for one. That followed similar restrictions from platforms like Facebook, Snapchat and Twitch, although none of those were initially announced as permanent.

And most recently, the conservative safe haven Parler was suspended from Amazon’s web hosting services due to concerns of the platform’s ability to police objectionable content. That followed Parler’s removal from Google Play and the App Store for similar reasons.

The moves by Big Tech serve as the latest fodder to bolster the conservative argument that right-wingers are routinely and nefariously silenced by Silicon Valley.

Those claims typically discount what was done to spur reprimands from Big Tech in the first place and disregard the frequently appearing data showing right-leaning Facebook pages outperforming left-leaning ones.

These accusations also rarely seem to acknowledge things like “The Ben Shapiro Show” routinely ranking among the most popular U.S. podcasts (doesn’t Apple, a dominant podcast platform, technically have the power to crush podcasts?), Facebook reportedly firing an engineer who was attempting to prove the network was giving preferential treatment to conservative pages and NPR’s recent investigation (which tapped individuals with access to Facebook’s metrics) that found no evidence of conservative bias.

Conservative bias grumblings aside, the recent moves by Big Tech are a step in the right direction to prevent fanning the flames on discussions similar to those that precipitated the storming of the U.S. Capitol, which led to five deaths.

Tech giants indicate having a greater willingness to take on accusations of bias with the most recent suspensions of Trump and ousting of Parler, given all the events occurred so closely together.

But the flip side to platforms like Facebook, Apple and Twitter aiming to curb violence via harshly punishing content moderation violations is it further demonstrates the great power these companies have at a time when they are most certainly trying to downplay their dominance (the FTC has sued Facebook for illegal monopolization, the Justice Department has sued Google for violating antitrust laws, etc.).

For example, Facebook and Twitter respectively received roughly 42 million and 23 million U.S. downloads across the App Store and Google Play from February to December 2020, according to Sensor Tower.

And while talk had been made last year of the rise of alternative social platforms for conservatives like Parler and MeWe, their reach remained relatively small. Parler and MeWe respectively received about 8 million and 2 million downloads from February to December 2020.

So even though TikTok recently emerged as a credible threat to large social networks like Facebook and Twitter, an antitrust advocate may use Parler’s treatment as an example of how Big Tech squashes competitors before they truly become a threat. This would add on to headaches like the antitrust suit Parler itself is already filing against Amazon.

Of course, it’s not like Facebook, Apple and Google should try and change the optics of monopolistic threat they allegedly pose by not acting to police content leading to violence.

This content moderation conundrum is a longstanding problem for tech platforms that likely won’t become easier as Joe Biden transitions into the White House.

While the Biden transition team is filled with former tech industry execs, Biden has criticized Big Tech in the past (a year ago he said he’d “never been a fan of Facebook”). The NYT in November suggested Biden may even introduce additional antitrust cases against Facebook, Apple or Amazon.