Big Tech’s grip on social media is a growing problem

Big Tech’s grip on social media is a growing problem

A trillion dollar company controls Facebook, Instagram, Threads and WhatsApp. That concentration of digital ownership can pose real-world dangers, as a recent censorship dispute with Meta revealed.

Last week, Meta apologized after blocking links by non-profit newspapers and independent journalists who published reports criticizing Facebook and accusing it of suppressing posts related to climate change. Meta denies that it censors content and blames an unspecified “security issue”.

Every link – about 6,000 stories – that the Kansas Reflector had ever posted to Facebook disappeared from the platform on Thursday. For seven hours, anyone trying to post a Reflector link received a warning that the site posed a security risk.

That’s seven hours in which the Reflector staff didn’t know why Meta — a tech behemoth that major publishers can’t ignore, given its grip on the world’s most popular social site — has been blasting not only the digital workforce for years but also undermining credibility from local newspapers , whose audience was told, mistakenly, that the link contained potential malware.

By the end of the day, almost all of the Reflector links were back online, except for one: an opinion piece criticizing Facebook’s policy on paid promotions.

To test the theory that the Reflector domain has some kind of security issue, a Brooklyn-based journalist, Marisa Kabas, asked permission to republish the text of the column on her own website. But sure enough, when Kabas posted his own link to a column on Threads, Meta flagged it as malicious content and removed it. Then Meta nuclear all his websites were ever published on his platform, a block that lasted at least two hours, Kabas told CNN.

Meta did not respond to CNN’s request for more information about the security issue. Kansas Reflector editor-in-chief Sherman Smith wrote Friday that Facebook spokesman Andy Stone “would not elaborate on how the error occurred and said there would be no further explanation.”

“What is a security error? We don’t know,” wrote Kabas in recounting the situation. “What caused the link to be blocked? We don’t know.” And while all links have been restored “our trust has been compromised at a time when people need a little reason not to believe the news.”

Meta Sentence
The disaster helped illustrate one of the more dangerous issues in our Too Online Era that is often shrouded in tedious regulatory jargon: the concentration of power in social media.

One of the ironies of the situation is that the first public statement from Meta came Thursday evening on X, the site formerly known as Twitter. Naturally, Kabas and the Reflector staff were forced to take their complaints to one of several public platforms not operated by Meta, which mostly left X and its smaller competitor, Bluesky.

“Anyone involved last week now understands that putting our civic conversation in the hands of a single for-profit business generates profound risks for society as a whole,” wrote Clay Wirestone, opinion editor of the Reflector.

Of course, Meta is regularly accused of censoring content by people across the political spectrum — people who often misunderstand that Meta is a business rather than the Free Speech Police. The difference here is that Meta admitted it made a mistake and eventually fixed it, albeit in a frustratingly opaque way that left content creators with a lot of questions.

Meta controls a bunch of the social media ecosystem, and that means there aren’t many competitors to keep it honest. Meanwhile, all media depend on it because content creators need to be in front of readers if they want to survive.

With nearly 4 billion monthly active users on its platform — Facebook alone accounts for 3 billion — it’s not hard to see why some would want to crack Meta, or at least make stronger rules to prevent it from cornering others from the market.

Of course, others argue that breaking Meta doesn’t necessarily solve the biggest problem with social media — namely that it perpetuates misinformation at an unprecedented speed and scope, damages teen mental health and creates a toxic echo chamber that undermines the promise of democracy. And if you bust Meta, there’s probably no stopping other tech giants from filling the void.

We don’t know what happened in the Meta to trigger the block of legitimate news sourcesh last week. But what we do know is that companies’ control over what we see online can have profound effects on the real world. When Meta decides to dramatically reduce referral traffic to media outlets, as it did last year, there’s little people outside of Meta can do to resist.

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