The centralization of social media has produced surveillance-based monopolies that serve predominantly United States-based corporate and state interests at the expense of the public good. Big Social Media (BSM) networks such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok have unprecedented influence over markets, media, and social norms. Exploiting large, captive audiences, these corporate platforms undermine democracy, threaten journalism, monopolize markets, erode privacy, perpetuate environmental destruction, and exercise control over foreign territories through digital colonialism. The U.S. state and its allies, in turn, piggyback off the data collected by corporate platforms for their own surveillance practices.
Corporate social media harms are the direct result of a privately-owned, panoptic, centralized architecture designed by social media giants for the purpose of profit and growth. These critical structural features have been poorly framed, missed, or ignored by scholars on the ‘left’ of the mainstream political spectrum, including the neo-Brandeisian school of antitrust and other ‘critics’ of the so-called “techlash” who, in many respects, fall in line with the interests of corporate power and U.S. imperialism. The present debate is thus a ‘framed debate’ in which right-wing supporters argue for the most limited reforms, while the mainstream left favors slightly stronger reforms intended to make Big Tech nicer and save digital capitalism. Both sides fail to address a multitude of problems detailed in this article, including, but not limited to, digital colonialism, American imperialism, the broken business model of digital capitalism, and the environmental crisis.
2. The Many Harms of Big Social Media
A social media network is an online platform designed to connect users so they can communicate, post, and share content with each other. What might be deemed a social media network can vary, but I will consider the big four — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok — for the purposes of this essay, because they have global reach and are structured around building friend and follower networks that post and share content.1Chat apps (e.g., Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Telegram) and video content platforms like YouTube feature some of the functionality of social media networks, but are not centered on social networking. Platforms like Russia’s VKontakte and multi-purpose apps like China’s WeChat are largely confined to users within their own countries, and are excluded from consideration in this article. Nevertheless, many of the dynamics discussed in this article also apply to a wider variety of online platforms.
BSM networks, led by the four mentioned above, are damaging the global economy, democracy, and society, in large part due to their concentrated power in the market. As we will see below, these networks capture a sizable portion of online advertising revenue, starving traditional media of revenues while imposing ads on users at a time when consumerism is destroying the environment. Additionally, they exercise control over political speech, often in ways that are biased towards the interests of the rich and powerful.
BSM is designed as a winner-takes-all model in which only a few networks dominate the social media landscape. This is in large part due to the fact that BSM networks do not interoperate, meaning that users of one network cannot interact with users of another network. As a result, people join a few networks at best, because it is not practical to log into, say, 30 different social media accounts. Given that users want to interact with their friends, and their friends want to interact with their own set of friends, it makes sense to join networks with large user bases where everyone can connect with their persons of choice. Scholars call this the “network effect” — a situation in which the more users join a network, the more valuable the network becomes. Without interoperability, users are essentially herded into a handful of networks that operate as closed silos. Network effects help explain why social media networks consolidated and centralized during the first decade of the 2000s.2For a brief history, see Kwet, M. (2021). Social Media Socialism: Social Media Socialism: People’s Tech and Decolonization for a Global Society in Crisis. SSRN. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3695356 Today, BSM user bases span from several hundred million (Twitter) to over a billion people (Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook).
Concentration of resources in the hands of a few transnational corporations undermines democracy as it equips private entities that place profit over people. This is especially true of U.S.-based corporations that use their resources to influence government policy and shape the public mind.
Drawing upon advertising as their primary source of income, BSM networks, owned and controlled as private property by transnational corporations, are incentivized to maximize user bases and time spent on their platforms, rather than simply providing a service for public good. The more the number of users and time spent on their networks, the more advertisements are served to users, and the more money the BSM networks make. Users can also pay the networks directly to boost their content.
The concentration of wealth and power that accrues to the winners of the social media sweepstakes leads to a wide variety of societal harms globally. For starters, the wealth ends up in the hands of a few corporations mostly based in the United States. As of February 2022, the market capitalization of Meta Platforms, which owns Facebook and Instagram, stood at USD 601.76 billion, while that of Twitter was USD 28.25 billion. TikTok is reportedly worth USD 50 billion, and its parent company, ByteDance, is worth an estimated USD 400 billion. Facebook’s revenue was USD 117.92 billion in 2021, with Instagram earning USD 47.6 billion. Twitter’s raked in USD 5 billion that year, while TikTok earned USD 4.6 billion.
In turn, this wealth disproportionately accrues to the owners and executives. Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg is worth USD 89.6 billion, Twitter’s founder Jack Dorsey is worth USD 12.3 billion, and ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming is worth USD 59.4 billion (though his wealth is mostly due to Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok). Within companies, salaries are stratified. While ‘skilled’ workers pull in six-figure salaries, those at the bottom of the pay scale earn poverty wages, with the most exploited located in the Global South.3See, e.g., Roberts, S. (2021). Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media. Yale University Press. https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300235883/behind-screen/ In February 2022, TIME reported in Kenya, content moderators — workers who scrub social media networks for content that violates the law or their policies, including disturbing and violent content — were earning USD 1.50 an hour. In Brazil, gig workers are paid USD 0.70 per hour to transcribe audio for TikTok.
Concentration of resources in the hands of a few transnational corporations undermines democracy as it equips private entities that place profit over people. This is especially true of U.S.-based corporations that use their resources to influence government policy and shape the public mind. In 2020, The Washington Post reported that tech giants spent nearly half a billion dollars lobbying the U.S. government over the past decade. In 2021, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft were the three biggest lobbying spenders in Europe. TikTok owner ByteDance, for its part, spent USD 2.14 million on lobbying in the United States during the second quarter of 2022.
As providers of information services, BSM is able to determine which information is allowed to traverse their networks beyond legally protected speech. To be sure, content moderation policies are needed to take down gore, pornography, hate speech, and mis/disinformation that can lead to real-world harms and fuel discrimination and violence. Yet, decisions about how to shape the flow of information gives BSM networks the power to influence public opinion beyond widely agreeable filtering. Leaked documents show that Facebook violated its own content moderation policies to appease powerful actors such as politicians. In March 2022, Meta Platforms announced it would allow Facebook and Instagram users in some countries to call for violence against Russians and Russian soldiers in the context of the Ukraine invasion — arguably a violation of its hate speech policy. Palestinians, by contrast, have never been afforded the same treatment in the context of Israeli invasions. Instead, Facebook has adopted policies that impede criticism of Israel and regularly deletes the accounts and posts of Palestinian activists it considers “incitement” at the direction of the U.S. and Israeli governments. Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok also banned Russian state-media outlets Sputnik and RT/Russia Today at the behest of the European Union. Such a move would never be taken against Western corporate media for its longstanding mis/disinformation in support of U.S. and NATO military aggression. As Alan MacLeod has documented, Meta has recruited dozens of officials from the CIA, as well as many more from other agencies like the FBI and Department of Defense (DoD). MacLeod also found that former FBI agents “abound at Twitter”, while TikTok is “flooded with NATO officials”. These findings have been met with silence from the U.S.-centered tech ‘left’.
Moreover, questions about where to draw the line on mis/disinformation are difficult and controversial, considering that people use these platforms for casual conversation and should have the right to share or publish legally protected information that may be inaccurate, especially when content moderation policies synchronize, leaving the public with few other options.
BSM networks also manipulate users’ algorithmic filters used for content moderation, thereby shaping the psychological states and interactions of users. Given that these corporations have global reach, slight changes to algorithms, policies, or platform features can shape the viewed content and interactions of billions of people.
Added to this, BSM undermines journalism. Over the past two decades, Google and Facebook have absorbed a large percentage of the online advertising revenue pie globally, prompting regulators to impose taxes on Big Tech platforms to raise revenue for their fledgling news agencies. In 2017, South African journalist Anton Harber deemed the two ad giants “the greatest threat to South African news media”. Countries like India, Australia, and France, among others, have made similar claims. The integrity of journalism is critical to a healthy democracy as quality news is essential for an informed public. On this count, BSM networks also undermine democracy when their algorithms amplify sensational and conspiratorial content.4Studies suggest a small fraction of social media users live inside filter bubbles and echo chambers that homogenize content and reinforce irrational or hateful ideas. For a review of the “filter bubble” and “echo chamber” literature, see Kwet, M. (2020). Social Media Socialism: People’s Tech and Decolonization for a Global Society in Crisis. Yale University – Information Society Project. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3695356
Because BSM networks are panoptic structures that collect and organize so much data about so many people, police and intelligence agencies are enticed to request or demand access. In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that a number of Big Tech corporations, including Facebook, were partnered with the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Twitter provides American police agencies with the means to access data on its network, and privacy and security experts are reasonably worried that the Chinese government may gain access to data about TikTok users. While the latter is yet to be proven, TikTok does hand over data about users to U.S. law enforcement agencies. Moreover, its China-based employees of parent company ByteDance “have repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US TikTok users”, prompting concerns that the Chinese government can obtain access as well. Studies show that living in an environment of mass commercial and government surveillance has a chilling effect on freedom of speech and association, which further undermines democracy.5For a review of relevant chilling effects literature, see Kwet, M. (2019). Digital Colonialism: South Africa’s Education Transformation in the Shadow of Silicon Valley. PhD Dissertation, pp. 102-107. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3496049 This, in turn, is likely to disproportionately affect vulnerable categories of users, such as people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, dissidents, and others who are at risk of government persecution and other forms of discrimination.
Digital colonialism — the use of digital technology for political, economic, and social control — is achieved principally through the ownership and control of digital infrastructure and the knowledge economy. Social media networks and similar social platforms (e.g., Reddit) and apps (e.g., Snapchat) are primarily dominated by U.S. transnational corporations, which in partnership with the U.S. government, lord over the rest of the world as neocolonial entities. Of the top 25 social media platforms, 13 are American and nine Chinese. However, aside from TikTok, the Chinese platforms and apps on the list are primarily used ‘inside’ mainland China. U.S. social media networks, by contrast, draw their user bases from around the world — Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have more users ‘outside’ the country than inside — affording them extraordinary power within these markets. Such centralization of resources leads to an unequal exchange and division of labor globally, whereby rich U.S. corporations dominate the high-tech economy as owners of intellectual property, data, and the means of computation, while poorer countries remain stuck in lower-earning activities such as mining and content moderation.
The general framework of digital capitalism and colonialism pushes us towards environmental catastrophe for two reasons. First, as degrowth scholars point out, the global economy is extracting resources at a rate beyond the sustainable limit, and must be scaled back and capped. Without aggregate growth, the maldistribution of wealth and income must be fixed so that all 8 billion people can enjoy a decent standard of living. As we have seen, BSM concentrates wealth and overpays skilled workers who consume well above the sustainable limit. Second, BSM operates on the basis of a consumerist model which, by imposing ads on people all day long, encourages a consumerist lifestyle. Many advertisements are psychologically manipulative and prey on people’s impulses to consume. Instead of encouraging people to buy things they often don’t need, digital platforms should facilitate communication in an ad-free environment. Advertising also uses finite resources that could be better used to provide people with basic needs.
3. Reformism and the Limitations of Capitalist Frameworks
In the late 2010s, criticism of Big Tech went mainstream as intellectuals became concerned about the rising power and influence of tech giants and BSM networks.6The Guardian declared 2016 “the year Facebook became the bad guy”, citing digital colonialism in India (via Free Basics), censorship of photos, livestreaming footage of human rights abuses, and politically polarizing filter bubbles, alongside its anticompetitive practices (copying features of Snapchat), enormous user base, and grotesque profits. In India, activists successfully resisted Facebook’s Free Basics — a project that would provide a Facebook-controlled, limited version of the internet for “free” as a means to entice new people to pay for the internet — as a form of digital colonialism. However, concerns about U.S.-led neocolonial domination would quickly fade. Instead, critics of social media would focus on content moderation, largely driven around Western elections, and antitrust as tools to reduce the power of Big Tech, including social media networks.
Content moderation is a major challenge for the administrators of any social network. The BSM networks host millions or billions of users who are able to post comments and content instantaneously. Not surprisingly, this is difficult to moderate. As noted above, most users want to be kept from viewing certain forms of legally permissible content such as pictures of gore, sexually explicit material, mis/disinformation, and hateful posts from other users.
Critics of content moderation practices emphasize that these networks exploit labor in the Global South and devote insufficient human resources to content moderation (disproportionate to the Global North). Many critics also allege that social networks produce filter bubbles and echo chambers and manipulate users to keep them glued to their networks. The latter two criticisms have an element of truth, but are somewhat exaggerated.
Reformist solutions to these problems include changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the United States (and similar laws in other countries) aimed at increasing liability for those hosting user-generated content, regulating algorithmic filtering, and demanding that BSM networks hire more human resources to moderate user content. There is no consensus on these proposals, but in and of themselves, they leave the ownership and control of social networking in the hands of U.S.-based tech giants — a problem unaddressed by the tech ‘left’.
Antitrust offers another popular reform said to challenge the concentrated power of Big Tech in general, including social media. Created in the United States at the end of the 19th century, antitrust laws instituted measures to prevent large companies, or ‘trusts’, from gaining unfair advantages over competitors in the market. From the perspective of antitrust, competitive capitalism is the ideal form of an economy, and governments should intervene to ensure that capitalism remains ‘fair’. At the leftmost end of the spectrum, Louis Brandeis argued that antitrust should consider how large companies could undermine democracy itself — what he called “the curse of bigness”.
For historian Gabriel Kolko, figures like Brandeis were far too moderate. Progressive Era policies like antitrust represented the “triumph of conservativism”, Kolko argued, in that they preserved the power and social relationships “essential to a capitalist society” and staved off more radical solutions being pushed for by the socialist movement for a more egalitarian economy and society.
Today, at the leftmost end of the spectrum, a new wave of American ‘neo-Brandeisian’ scholars and their European counterparts argue that a reinvigorated antitrust initiative can counter the giant corporations and wealth concentration of the neoliberal era. Eschewing socialist critiques of capitalism and solutions, they aim to “make capitalism great again” through new progressive policies.
Progressive advocates of antitrust miss its numerous limitations. For starters, antitrust is only good for those who can compete once new market spaces are opened up by reforms and litigation. Needless to say, with over half the world’s population living under the poverty line of USD 7.40 per day, the ‘winners’ in the new competition for market share will not be people from the townships in Africa, the slums of Asia and Latin America, or the reservations of Australia and North America.
Europeans have made explicit the lie that European antitrust is about a ‘fair’ economy for all humans, rather than European power elites themselves. In 2021, the EU’s widely lauded Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager told the press in no uncertain terms that Europe needs to “build its own European tech giants”. The United Kingdom aims to produce its own trillion-dollar behemoth. President Emanuel Macron has promised to pump €5 billion into tech start-ups in hopes that France will have at least 25 so-called ‘unicorns’ — companies valued at USD 1 billion or more — by 2025. Germany is spending €3 billion to become a global artificial intelligence powerhouse and a world leader (i.e., market colonizer) in digital industrialization. And the Netherlands aims to become a “unicorn nation”.
The championing of ‘competitive capitalism’ by neo-Brandeisians in the U.S. ignores that capitalism is a form of structural inequality which harms the Global South the most. In fact, prominent U.S.-based antitrust advocates completely ignore digital colonialism, even though it is American corporations that are colonizing the rest of the world.
The championing of ‘competitive capitalism’ by neo-Brandeisians in the U.S. ignores that capitalism is a form of structural inequality which harms the Global South the most. In fact, prominent U.S.-based antitrust advocates like Lina Khan, Matt Stoller, Tim Wu, Zephry Teachout, and Barry Lynn completely ignore digital colonialism, even though it is American corporations that are colonizing the rest of the world. Much like Louis Brandeis ignored racism during the era of Jim Crow, this new school of advocacy systematically erases American empire and the Global South from the picture.7
While there is a slight turn of attention to the Global South from scholars, this constitutes an expansion of the American empire project, as it takes in the framework adopted by the U.S.-centered tech ‘left’ alluded to in this essay. See, for example, the essay series put out by the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a North-South collaboration that fails to mention colonialism, imperialism, American empire, or the environment.
Other proposed reformist capitalist measures, such as progressive taxation, the development of new technology as a public option, and better worker protections also fail to address root causes and core problems. Progressive digital capitalism is better than nothing. But it is nationalist in orientation, cannot rein in digital colonialism, and retains a commitment to private enterprise, profit, accumulation, growth, and the mythology that ‘capitalism’ made ‘good’ by government regulation is somehow possible and ideal.
In the domain of social media, the ACCESS Act of 2021 proposed by U.S. lawmakers would force BSM networks to interoperate. According to the bill, large platforms would be forced to interoperate under the following conditions:
They have at least 50 million or more U.S.-based monthly active users (or at least 100,000 U.S. business users) in the year preceding a complaint about non-compliance;
They are owned or controlled by a person, partnership, or corporation with net annual sales or market cap greater than USD 600 billion in the two years preceding a complaint;
They are considered a critical trading partner for the sale or provision of any product or service offered on or directly related to the online platform (i.e., if they can restrict or impede other businesses dependent upon them).
The EU’s Digital Markets Act stipulates similar limitations for interoperability. Instead of reining it in, this partial interoperability may, instead, leave BSM at an advantage, as small networks remain incentivized to interoperate with them, so that their own users can interact with members of the giants, but less so with the other small social networks they compete against.
Another critique of antitrust is that the practice of force-feeding people ads, which inflames consumerism that is destroying the planet, remains unaddressed. To the extent that social media is privatized, it will remain problematic because the same exploitative dynamics persist: in order to maximize revenue, profit, growth, and market share, a network must maximize user head count and time spent on the network. The capitalist war of competition for eyeballs is a problem, not a solution.
The ACCESS Act may offer a reform that makes social media better than what we have now, but it fails to address how capitalist dynamics generate structural forms of inequality and a wide range of harms to society.
4. Socialist Solutions to Social Media
While tech giants like Meta, TikTok, and Twitter dominate the social media landscape, there are alternative social networks at the margins. One such network, that would eventually be called The Fediverse, is a fully interoperable alternative social media landscape with several million active users. The first software, originally called Laconica (later renamed StatusNet, and then GNU Social), implemented an open protocol known as OpenMicroBlogging8 OpenMicroBlogging was a collection of existing protocols, including OAuth, OAuth Discovery, YADIS, and XMPP. See, Prodromou, E. (2008). OpenMicroBlogging. W3C https://www.w3.org/2008/09/msnws/papers/W3C_FOSN_Position_Paper. (eventually replaced by OStatus). The technology was designed to offer Twitter-like services that “federate” as interoperable social networks, meaning that anyone could download the software and run their micro-blogging service on the network.9 For a more detailed overview of the Fediverse, its origins, and references to other works, see Kwet, M. (2020). Social Media Socialism: People’s Tech and Decolonization for a Global Society in Crisis. Yale University – Information Society Project. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3695356
Federated social networks were created so that users could interact with friends across services running on different servers to communicate comments, likes, messages, photos, favorites — all the things social networks allow them to do. In order to interoperate, the networks have to use common ‘protocols’. Much like email, so long as the servers ‘implement’ the same protocols, users on one service could interact with users on another server of a different service without having to join multiple service providers.
From the outset, federated social networks were created by developers from within the Free Software community, unified by commitments to sharing and openness. As Evan Prodromou, a lead developer helping to create the Fediverse, put it in 2008, Facebook’s model — a “walled garden” platform provided free of charge but commercialized through data extraction and advertising — is “a perfect storm for privacy issues”. In opposition to centralized cloud solutions dominated by a few companies, Prodromou argued for an “open, distributed, and interconnected” social web that would link people and groups across servers. A “decentralized network of social networks” based on Free Software and open standards, Prodromou added, would help mitigate privacy abuses while resisting censorship and top-down control.
Many new projects were created. Social web networks like GNU Social, Friendica, and Hubzilla joined the fray and new protocols emerged (e.g., pump.io, Matrix). Platforms were created for activities like social media decentralization (GNU Media Goblin) and chatting (Riot). Many of these options used different protocols, or the same protocols differently. As a result, only some services federated with others. In 2016, the federated micro-blogging service Mastodon was created by Eugen Rochko. The platform became the first to generate a large user base in the decentralized networking community, in part due to its polished design and user-friendly interface. Mastodon initially used the OStatus protocol, but eventually shifted to the ActivityPub protocol. Over the past few years, ActivityPub has been implemented by many other decentralized social networks, including Friendica, GNU Social, Pleroma, Hubzilla, PeerTube, and PixelFed. Other features, such as an ActivityPub plugin for WordPress, allows sites like Mastodon to view WordPress websites as a federated member.
At present, Mastodon is the most popular network with over 4 million registered users, and ActivityPub is the most popular protocol, with OStatus a close second and Diaspora a distant third. These and other services form the ‘Fediverse’, a collection of social networks that interact to form a decentralized social web. The networks are bound together by commitments to openness inspired by the Free Software community.
Running in parallel to the Fediverse, a series of projects were created on the basis of peer-to-peer architecture. The most robust case example is LibreSocial, which has been in development for years, and has recently stated it is close to releasing an alpha version to the public. Peer-to-peer (P2P) models have a crucial difference to the current Fediverse networks in that they fully distribute the data storage and communications to the edge of the network. Another network, Panquake, is a Free and Open Source, privacy-conscious, censorship-resistant network in late-stage development and hosted on the blockchain, and will implement the ActivityPub protocol.
In order to transfer ownership and control to users and communities — rather than ruling class interests — developers, activists, and researchers in the Fediverse design alternative social media systems around principles of democratic self-governance. These efforts stress user ownership of and control over their data and profiles, preserving user privacy, and the ability to directly control how social networks operate.
With decentralized social networks, power is redistributed to users and communities. The data of millions or billions of people is not owned by a few entities, but is, instead, hosted in a decentralized or distributed fashion. Likewise, the capacity to control user interactions is not concentrated in the hands of centralized actors, but is, instead, subject to decisions made by the communities themselves.
The new systems, presently centered in the Fediverse, attempt to decentralize social networking systems for direct ownership and control by the communities who use them. With decentralized social networks, power is redistributed to users and communities. The data of millions or billions of people is not owned by a few entities, but is, instead, hosted in a decentralized or distributed fashion. Likewise, the capacity to control user interactions is not concentrated in the hands of centralized actors, but is, instead, subject to decisions made by the communities themselves.
The federation of services across interoperable social networks aligns closely with a libertarian socialist (anarchist) vision for society. For anarchists, “the positive vision of libertarian [socialist] economics would, undoubtedly, include such features as common ownership of land, socialization of industry, workers’ self-management of production, and federations of workers’ councils”.10McKay, I. (2012). ‘Laying the Foundations: Proudhon’s Contribution to Anarchist Economics’ in Derric Shannon et al. (Eds.), The Accumulation of Freedom: Writings on Anarchist Economics. p. 64. Moreover, anarchists oppose imperialism and reactionary nationalist forms of anti-imperialist resistance, instead favoring solidarity across nationalities and borders for global peace and prosperity.
As a product of the Free Software Movement, decentralized social networking services in the Fediverse seek to embody the ethos of libertarian socialist economics, even if they do not explicitly identify with the anarchist tradition — though some prominent figures do.11Id. The design principles of decentralization, federation, voluntary association, self-governance, and communal ownership over the means of computation is distinctively anarchist. Mastodon’s founder and lead developer, Eugen Rochko, distinguishes Mastodon from Twitter on more or less anarchist grounds:
The decentralization imperative, Rochko writes elsewhere, is intended to fix the “power asymmetry” between users and centralized platform companies:
A centralized social media platform has a hierarchical structure where rules and their enforcement, as well as the development and direction of the platform, are decided by the CEO, with the users having close to no ways to disagree. You can’t walk away when the platform holds all your friends, contacts, and audience. A decentralized network deliberately relinquishes control of the platform owner, by essentially not having one.
With such a structure in place, interesting experiments have already taken place. For example, the Mastodon host service allows people to set up their own Mastodon instance (network). For about USD 10/month, you can host up to 1,000 users. The user-friendly interface is point-and-click, so that knowledge of networking and computer programming is unnecessary. Another example, a Maston instance called social.coop, is administered collectively according to International Cooperative Alliance principles. Members pay a minimum of USD 1 per month and agree to a collectively defined Code of Conduct. Decisions regarding social.coop are made via a group discussion and decision-making platform called Loomio. A third project, a Mastodon fork called Hometown, has a local feed so that users have the option to keep their posts exclusive to their own instance. While users can still see posts from the broader Fediverse, their posts can be more private so that a small, trusted community can develop.
Not surprisingly, some problems with BSM networks also afflict decentralized ones. With respect to content moderation, there are users who complain about harassment, hostile environments, and spam in some areas of the Fediverse. As noted earlier, content moderation is problematic in part because users can post instantaneously, without pre-approval by a moderator, and so it is inevitable that some people do things which are undesirable. The best solution to this problem is to hire human moderators, but this is an expensive task.
There are also privacy pros and cons in the world of decentralized social media. Decentralized social networks can be scraped for content easily because there is no centralized administrator able to detect it across all networks in the Fediverse. Because of this, researchers have scraped public Mastodon posts on multiple occasions without the consent of users, and it is possible that others, such as intelligence agencies, have done the same. Moreover, in Fediverse networks like Mastodon, administrators can still see which traffic traverses their network, such as when people log in and post content. Services in development like LibreSocial and Panquake lack centralized data hosting altogether and encrypt privately-posted content, thereby providing greater degrees of privacy for public posts than present Fediverse networks. Of course, ultra-centralized BSM networks like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok can access all posts — public or private — traversing their network, and so the only privacy they offer is some limitations to scraping public posts by third parties. Additionally, they appear to allow data collection by legal authorities using investigative software, such as ShadowDragon, to spy on individuals and groups making public posts.
Curiously, the vast literature on antitrust and social media systematically ignores the Fediverse despite the fact that it has been around for over a decade and stands as the one and only large-scale interoperable social networking service available. Yet, as a real, living, breathing social media system hosting millions of users, it provides us with a prototype proving that social media can work differently.
The vast literature on antitrust and social media systematically ignores the Fediverse despite the fact that it has been around for over a decade and stands as the one and only large-scale interoperable social networking service available. Yet, as a real, living, breathing social media system hosting millions of users, it provides us with a prototype proving that social media can work differently.
5. Towards a Democratic Social Media Commons
While antitrust advocates put forth a capitalist version of interoperable social networks, to the extent that private ownership geared towards profit and accumulation prevails, the many harms of BSM networks will persist. A set of regulations geared towards socializing social media networks is needed if we are to get beyond the imperialism, manipulation, environmental destruction, and authoritarian concentration of wealth and power that are the cornerstones of a capitalist economy.
For a solution that empowers users and communities, redistributes wealth and power, and orients itself towards a livable ecology, we need laws that will support a more fundamental overhaul of the social media ecosystem. I propose seven policies that would collectively aim to lock in a democratic social media commons.
First, mandate interoperability, network decentralization, and Free and Open Source solutions in tandem. As we have discussed, interoperability across social media networks would force BSM networks to relinquish the practice of keeping users fenced into corporate silos. While the ACCESS Act mandates interoperability, it only does so for U.S.-based social media giants with enormous revenues and user bases. Instead, mandatory interoperability must accompany most, if not all, social media networks, including those of a smaller size. Data portability requirements would help users migrate their accounts should they wish to change service providers.
Network decentralization could apply to the incumbents, so they have to allow their users to create instances within their networks. This would remove their administrative power over content moderation and decouple their platform from the hosting of user data.
Mandatory open sourcing of the software stack under copyleft Free Software licenses (such as the GNU Affero General Public License [AGPL]) would also provide users with the ability to fork any new platforms so that communities maximize their ability to control how they work. In addition, protocols would be open, so that anyone can implement them to talk across networks, as would Application Programming Interfaces (API)s, so that new apps and websites can be created for using the networks.
Second, future-proof strategies against circumvention by Big Tech and Western powers. If forced to implement the aforementioned policies, tech giants may try to adapt by offering services exclusive to their networks. For example, Facebook may start offering exclusive content to ensure people keep using their networks. Just recently, Microsoft announced a Facebook/Instagram “rip off” for Microsoft Teams, and this kind of strategy may proliferate as a new corporate strategy in an interoperable social media world. Therefore, strategies like bundling content and features should be banned at the outset.
If humanity is to abolish all forms of inequality and save the planet from ecological collapse, it would require pushing beyond the limited reforms of progressive capitalism. At this moment in history, we are at the precipice of environmental catastrophe because of the reckless nature of capitalist exploitation. Big Social Media is part of the problem, and its solutions require fundamental transformation based on socialist innovations.
Third, abolish and amend laws inconsistent with a social media commons. Copyright and patents are particularly threatening as they can create entry barriers for smaller networks and developers. For example, rules requiring strict copyright enforcement could threaten smaller networks. At present, BSM networks apply expensive systems like Content ID filters to stop users from uploading copyrighted works. Ideally, copyright and patents would be abolished and remuneration for artists, developers, and content creators would be handled in an egalitarian and democratic fashion. Until then, rules that ensure those with deep pockets can survive must not be allowed to prevail.
Advertising is also an extremely wasteful, manipulative, and destructive way to fund social media and entertainment. Bans on coercive advertising, which would mean that users are never forced to watch ads unless they want to (including paid product placement within content), would effectively kill the advertising industry. (Alternative funding options are discussed in point five below.)
Fourth, pass strong data privacy and consumer protection laws. Recent laws like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) are said to protect user privacy, but they haven’t done much to date. Users are often asked to consent to company policies as a precondition to using their service, and these ‘click-through’ agreements do little to stop commercial surveillance. Stronger privacy laws that explicitly ban the exploitation of user data for commercial purposes like marketing would benefit society enormously. Consumer protection laws could also include information fiduciary rules that oblige networks to treat information they obtain “for the client’s benefit and not to use the information to the client’s disadvantage”. While what constitutes the client’s benefit and disadvantage is vague at the outset, if implemented in ways that benefit users and communities, information fiduciaries could provide an additional backstop against exploitation and manipulation of social media users.
Fifth, subsidize the digital economy through an eco-socialist Digital Tech Deal. While companies like Meta pay out a median salary of USD 250,000 per year, small social networks are run by a handful of paid developers and volunteers. For example, the founder and lead developer of Mastodon, Eugen Rochko, makes just USD 70,000 through user donations. Federated web platforms have proven they can create and maintain complex social networking features on a shoestring budget. Nevertheless, internet decentralization projects would be greatly enhanced if they were well-funded. Funds to support social media, including content, could initially be raised through taxes on corporations and the rich. To ensure that people, not the state, guide the process, people can be given tax vouchers, thereby giving them a say in which social networks, developers, and content creators get funding.
Because social media and entertainment has global reach, to make sure this process is geared towards global equality and democracy, a globally planned and coordinated ‘deal’ is needed to phase them out and replace them with a democratic digital commons. Part of the Digital Tech Deal could ensure a just transition for jobs dedicated to wasteful and exploitative practices like behavioral manipulation and advertising. Some of that money could also go towards infrastructure development and well-paying jobs for people in the Global South as a form of reparations.
Sixth, form regulatory bodies to regulate the social media commons. Grassroots movements could pressure governments to create a Digital Commons authority dedicated to securing a decentralized, federated web. This would: 1) oversee standards, protocols, and software licenses to enforce interoperability, data portability, and network decentralization, and 2) enforce against exclusionary conduct and foreclosure, and monitor anti-competitive strategies that might still emerge in a socialist context. Regulations would also ensure oversight over the open sourcing of social media software through strong copyleft licenses and mandatory data decentralization.
To bolster bottom-up democratic procedures, schools can teach and utilize decentralized social networks. Students could learn how to run an instance in the Fediverse, the basics of software licenses, as well as the many harms of BSM networks.
Seven, formulate solutions jointly with international and grassroots communities. Legal solutions could utilize digital tools to pool international global input efficiently in a non-hierarchical manner. The widely used copyleft license, the GNU General Public License version 3 (GPLv3), provides a glimpse of how technology could facilitate widespread consultation. When drafting the GPLv3 in 2006, a custom software tool called Stet was created for collaborative commenting. Comments were made through email and web interfaces, and the software made it easy to see which sections of the license most interested commentators. Public events were also held in-person in both Global North and South countries, and discussion committees were formed for individual users and developers, commercial entities, and non-profits. Other software tools used to coordinate decentralized participation in democratic processes, such as those used to coordinate policy processes in Taiwan, could also be used to incorporate grassroots input.
Whichever way the process is organized, the international community should have power over the decisions which impact them. A social media commons solution should be explicitly crafted to preclude the dominance of the United States and its wealthy allies.
To be sure, implementing a socialist-based democratic digital commons would require a powerful international grassroots movement behind it that could be woven into other social justice movements. BSM networks are collectively worth trillions of dollars, and the principles guiding socialization are an even greater threat to the capitalist system. However, if humanity is to abolish all forms of inequality and save the planet from ecological collapse, it would require pushing beyond the limited reforms of progressive capitalism. At this moment in history, we are at the precipice of environmental catastrophe because of the reckless nature of capitalist exploitation. Big Social Media is part of the problem, and its solutions require fundamental transformation based on socialist innovations.