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Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media by Tarleton Gillespie, Yale University Press, US $30.00, Pp 296, June 2018, ISBN 978-0300173130

The social media has changed our lives over the last decade or so. We do not think, act or react in the same way as before the social media became a part of everybody’s life in the 2000s. If social media has brought benefits, it has extracted a heavy cost for that. As social media assumes more importance, the question of content moderation on the social media becomes a most fundamental question of our times. In Custodians of the Internet, Tarleton Gillespie discusses this fundamental question among many other important questions concerning the social media. Gillespie says that social media platforms arose out of the exquisite chaos of the web. Many were designed by people who were inspired by (or at least hoping to profit from) the freedom the web promised, to host and extend all that participation, expression and social connection. But as these platforms grew, that chaos and contention quickly found its way back onto them, and for obvious reasons. The logic is simple: If I want to say something, whether it is inspiring or reprehensible, I want to say it where others will hear me.

Social media platforms put more people in direct contact with one another, afford them new opportunities to speak and interact with a wider range of people and organize them into networked publics. Tarleton Gillespie says that though the benefit of this may be obvious, the perils are also painfully apparent in the shape of the pornographic, the obscene, the violent, the illegal, abusive and the hateful. The fantasy of a truly “open” platform is powerful, resonating with deep, utopian notions of community and democracy – but it remains just a fantasy. There is no platform that does not impose rules. Tarleton Gillespie argues that platforms must moderate in some form or another — both to protect one user from another, or one group from its antagonists, and to remove the offensive, vile, or illegal. In this way, they can present their best face to new users, to their advertisers and partners, and to the public at large.

As users, we demand that they moderate and that they not moderate too much. But as citizens, Tarleton Gillespie argues, we must begin to be that authority, be custodians of the custodians. Participation comes with its own form of responsibility. We must demand that platforms take on an expanded sense of responsibility and that they share the tool to govern collectively. So far they have largely failed to accept this responsibility, too easily convinced, perhaps, that the structure of the digital network would somehow manufacture consensus for us. When users threaten and harass, when they game the system, when they log on just to break the fragile accomplishments of others for kicks, this hardly demonstrates a custodial concern for what participation is, and what it should be. But simply crying foul when you don’t agree with someone, or when you don’t share his normative sense of propriety, or you don’t like a platform attempt to impose some rules is not a custodial response either. And in the current arrangement, platforms, in fact, urge us to go no farther.

The truth is, we wish platforms could moderate away the offensive and the cruel. We wish they could answer these hard questions for us and let us get on with the fun of sharing jokes, talking politics and keeping up with those we care about. But these are the fundamental and, perhaps, unresolvable tensions of social and public life. The platforms, along with users, should take on this greater responsibility. But it is a responsibility that requires attending to these unresolvable tensions, acknowledging and staying with them – not just trying to sweep them away.

Custodians of the Internet is a remarkable work of scholarship on how to clean the cyberspace. Tarleton Gillespie shows the role social media has been playing in our lives. He diligently shows how different social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter moderate content on their media platforms and how they should do it. In this meticulously researched book, he powerfully argues that content management must remain central to the social media platforms. As a principal researcher at Microsoft Research New England and an affiliated associate professor at Cornell University, Tarleton Gillespie knows more than anybody else how social media is reshaping the world which makes its content moderation an absolute necessity.

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