Yesterday I attended the online launch event for Edgelands, a pop-up institute that is being incubated at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center. The Institute’s goal is to study how our social contract is being redrawn, especially in urban areas, as a consequence of technological changes such as pervasive surveillance and unforeseen crises such as the global pandemic. The design of the EI is very distinctive: it is time-limited (5 years), radically decentralized, and aiming to bridge gaps between perspectives and methodologies as diverse as academic research, public policy, and art. It is also notable for its focus on rest-of-world urban dynamics outside the North-Atlantic space (Beirut, Nairobi, and Medellín are among the pilot cities). Some of its initiatives, from what can be gleaned at the outset, appear a bit whimsical, but it will be interesting to follow the Institute’s development, as a fresh approach to these topics could prove extremely inspiring.
Interesting article by James Vincent in The Verge about a decision by Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube to shut down a university webinar over fears of disseminating opinions advocating violence “carried out by […] criminal or terrorist organizations”. The case is strategically placed at the intersection of several recent trends.
On the one hand, de-platforming as a means of struggle to express outrage at the views of an invited speaker is a tactic that has been used often, especially on college campuses, even before the beginning of the pandemic and for in-person events. However, it appears that the pressure in this specific case was brought to bear by external organizations and lobby groups, without a visible grassroots presence within the higher education institution in question, San Francisco State University. Moreover, such pressure was exerted by means of threats of legal liability not against SFSU, but rather targeting the third-party, commercial platforms enabling diffusion of the event, which was to be held as a remote-only webinar for epidemiological concerns. Therefore, the university’s decision to organize the event was thwarted not by the pressure of an in-person crowd and the risk of public disturbances, but by the choice of a separate, independent actor, imposing external limitations derived from its own Terms of Service, when faced with potential litigation.
The host losing agency to the platform is not the only story these events tell, though. It is not coincidental that the case involves the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, and that the de-platformed individual was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who participated in two plane hijackings in 1969-70. The transferral of an academic discussion to an online forum short-circuited the ability academic communities have traditionally enjoyed to re-frame discussions on all topics –even dangerous, taboo, or divisive ones– as being about analyzing and discussing, not about advocating and perpetrating. At the same time, post-9/11 norms and attitudes in the US have applied a criminal lens to actions and events that in their historical context represented moves in an ideological and geopolitical struggle. Such a transformation may represent a shift in the pursuit of the United States’ national interest, but what is striking about this case is that a choice made at a geo-strategic, Great Power level produces unmediated consequences for the opinions and rights of expression of individual citizens and organizations.
This aspect in turn ties in to the debate on the legitimacy grounds of platform content moderation policies: the aspiration may well be to couch such policies in universalist terms, and even take international human rights law as a framework or a model; however, in practice common moral prescriptions against violence scale poorly from the level of individuals in civil society to that of power politics and international relations, while the content moderation norms of the platforms are immersed in a State-controlled legal setting which, far from being neutral, is decisively shaped by their ideological and strategic preferences.