Recently, a lot of internet companies have come under legal scrutiny. Twitter just banned political advertising in October, and in the same month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified to Congress about Facebook creating its own cryptocurrency.
With recent changes and questions about what and who deserves to be on the internet, it is important for us to know who is actually shaping our social media feeds.
While some of the policies that control content on the internet are governmental (like the California ban on political deepfakes) the majority come from the internet companies themselves through algorithmic feeds. While at first these policies seem insignificant and mundane, they control what we see and have access to, and therefore what we care about. We need transparency in the way our internet experience is being shaped by the companies that control it. In the same way we call for news organizations and the government to be clear about the information they release and restrict, it is imperative we do the same for internet giants.
According to Newsweek, since 2017, over 70% of all internet traffic happens under the jurisdiction of either Google or Facebook, and their reach is on the rise. In addition, Facebook has more users than any single country has population. As the de facto gatekeepers of the internet, Google and Facebook have the power to shape public opinion without us even realizing it. Simple acts, like tweaking an algorithm or prioritizing a hashtag, can make or break important news stories.
Currently, we use the internet as a public sphere for discussion and discourse, but we are not recognizing the limitations of social platforms on the internet. Our internet experience is controlled by giant privatized companies that make up the majority of everyday interactions on the web.
By recognizing the privatization of the internet access we have, we realize how our view and access is stunted. By looking into the policies and corporations that control internet access, we can begin to understand how our view is shaped.
According to Business Insider, 90% of internet searches take place through Google, making them “the knowledge company of the internet.” Furthermore, Business Insider reports that over 70% of U.S. adults are on either Facebook or Instagram (owned by Facebook), making the company majority controllers of the social media sphere. If these companies decide to bury or delete certain content, the public should know about it. These companies have a great deal of control over what the public cares about.
Facebook has a history of avoiding outright policies that control content. SFTV professor Robert Simmons noted Facebook’s lack of any official policy to censor content, and commented that, “the idea that [Facebook isn’t] controlling the content is disingenuous because they have algorithms controlling the content.” Simmons brought up an important point in recognizing that whether we like it or not, certain content is being prioritized.
Popular social platform TikTok is another example. The videos posted on TikTok have real-world impact, namely in popular memes and music charts. However, what most users fail to consider is that the company is owned by ByteDance, a tech company based in China. Recently, the Washington Post reported on complaints made by American TikTok employees about having to abide by Chinese censorship policies. Again, people may assume that popular apps are free and fairly filtered, but in actuality, they are carefully limited by the algorithmic way they promote certain content.
Social platforms can be ways to explore ideas and communicate with people from around the world, but to get the most out of the internet, we must know what goes into shaping it. By recognizing the limitations of the content we access easily, we can more accurately understand what factors work to create our perspectives.
With the upcoming election and the constant events and protests around the world, understanding how our perspectives are shaped is essential to fighting our ignorance and becoming better citizens.
This is the opinion of Alyssa Story, a freshman film, television and media studies major from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Tweet comments @LALoyolan or email firstname.lastname@example.org.