Will people power return as social media giants lose their grip?

Tech companies once held all the cards but corporate setbacks and Musk's anarchic Twitter takeover could change all that

The absolute power once enjoyed by sophisticated social media platforms like Twitter could be beginning to crack. Reuters
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For many people, checking their social media feed has become so routine that it now feels almost automatic.

Like so many everyday tools, the mechanisms behind these platforms can seem invisible due to designers' efforts to make them seem natural, using sophisticated and data-driven methods to entice users to spend as much time on the apps as possible.

These techniques include triggering the brain's reward centre, inducing so-called Fomo – the fear of missing out – and using the famous “infinite scroll” that encourages easy endless swiping through content.

In the early days of social media and up until recently, we focused on adapting to these platforms' environments, making sure we knew exactly how to use them to their full capacity and finding out what each feature does. It also meant accepting their rules as if they were set in stone. The thought of having an active rather than passive role in this atmosphere was a distant thought.

Some rules, like banning certain users or removing violent posts, made sense to a certain degree but it didn't occur to many people that things could be different.

For me, it wasn’t until I worked for an Iranian diaspora TV station that I found out about the caveats. When sharing content about Iran’s 2019 protests, many of the posts were removed from Instagram and the account was shadowbanned.

Some of these posts covered peaceful demonstrations in which people were chanting, calling for “death” to the regime authorities, something that was a common slogan back then. There was significant confusion about the ban on the part of the journalists, and subsequent videos were less circulated owing to its effects.

This resulted in significant frustration because the entire purpose of our role was to give voice to the unheard protesters inside the country but we were not able to achieve this perfectly.

The lack of clear communication between these social media companies and their users added to a feeling of power being exerted and gave tech giants the illusion of omnipotence. Trying to make a complaint was like screaming down a well.

In another instance, posts containing pictures or the name of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani were removed. Although people were critical of his ideology and voiced their dissatisfaction in these clips, apparently the bots interpreted the videos as being in support of him. Therefore, they removed them to comply with US sanctions. It seemed like holding these companies accountable was almost impossible.

People block a road in Tehran November 16, 2019, in protest at rising fuel prices. Coverage of the protests on social media often fell foul of tech companies' rules. Wana

One major incident that helped change all this was when the US Federal Trade Commission filed an amended complaint against Facebook, alleging that the social media giant was a monopoly that broke federal antitrust rules.

That was the first solid stone thrown at their wall.

However, I consider Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter to be the greatest strike. The revelation that he had purchased a 9.2 per cent stake in the platform in April stunned the world.

Trying to make a complaint was like screaming down a well

In the same way that mechanical reproduction destroyed the aura of unique artefacts, Mr Musk's takeover appears to have the same effect on social platforms, either consciously or unconsciously.

In his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin explained that the mass production of artworks diminished their authority over an audience. It almost seems like a similar phenomenon is taking place today, with social media's grip being weakened.

Take, for example, Twitter's infamous "blue tick", which was seen as a sign of respect and credibility. To obtain this badge, you were required to demonstrate your competence through a difficult process and be reviewed by the company. However, during Mr Musk's tenure, you could pay as little as $8 a month to receive the blue checkmark as well as other perks.

We see it in his own tweets, in which he mocks the status quo and even asks the general public for their opinion on key decisions, although he may not follow through on them. In both cases, this could be yet another way for people to lose faith in the empowering system that lies behind social media platforms.

Although Mr Musk's leadership style has been heavily criticised, I think that it may lead to positive changes in the future.

Whether he is intentionally trying to distance people from being mere spectators to having an active role, it could be a much-needed step in the evolution of social media platforms.

It is undeniable that social media plays a huge role in modern political activism, especially in developing countries where people need other mediums to have their voices heard. The breaking down of the absolute power of these platforms can be a powerful message for people and ensure that these environments won't mimic the dictatorships that people around the world are trying to overthrow.

Published: January 31, 2023, 5:00 AM