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Trump is not doing anything to stop weaponisation of social media

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“A small handful of powerful social media monopolies control the vast portion of all private and public communications in the United States.” So said US President Donald Trump, unlikely challenger of corporate power and even more unlikely defender of democracy on the occasion of the announcement of his Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship, issued on May 28.

Trump issued the order after Twitter, the president’s favourite weapon of disinformation, dared to fact-check and slap warnings on some of his tweets, including one posted after protests broke out in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. According to Twitter, Trump’s threatening statement – “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” – violates the company’s rules about glorifying violence.

In response to this unprecedented type of correction, Trump’s executive order seeks to remove the immunity afforded to internet companies by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that protects companies like Twitter and Facebook from being sued for libel if users publish defamatory content on their platforms.

The logic here is baffling: if internet companies are going to censor his free speech, Trump will try to remove the protection that allows free speech in the first place – protection that has allowed him to tweet with impunity!

As if that was not enough, Trump is claiming, with newly found antitrust vigour, that a concentration of corporate power (in the form of “censorship” of his tweets) is a direct threat to American democracy. As the executive order states: “When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree, they exercise a dangerous power. They cease functioning as passive bulletin boards, and ought to be viewed and treated as content creators.”

The Trump administration is right about one thing: social media platforms are not mere bulletin boards. In reality, their algorithms can promote or hide content according to opaque principles that they are not obligated to disclose, and which are not regulated.

Their policies can also foment hate speech and disinformation, which can have serious political ramifications and even put lives at risk. As the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated, however, the current administration and its supporters consider it acceptable to endanger some lives in the interest of profit maximisation.

Still, Trump’s strategy is not well thought out, and experts agree that the changes to the law proposed by the executive order – changes that would require the Federal Communications Commission to be involved in determining which companies should be protected by Section 230, and which ones should not – would be ineffective and possibly in violation of the First Amendment, which prevents the government from restricting free speech.

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Even if it all came to pass, the good news for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is that his company could escape Trump’s wrath. While Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has suggested that their fact-checking is necessary to allow users to judge content for themselves, Zuckerberg has consistently held that social media companies should not be in the business of determining what is true or what is not (this time, some Facebook employees are publicly disagreeing with their boss and holding virtual walkouts).

Zuckerberg’s insistence might have less to do with a passion for free speech and more with the fact that controversy, disinformation, and unrest are good business drivers for social media platforms.

They increase traffic and get more users to spend time watching advertisements. This explains why Facebook dismissed its own research about the divisive effect the platform has on society. Facebook, like tobacco companies, knows it is not in the business of protecting its users, as the sharp increase in customer data breaches also shows.

Meanwhile, the government sees hate speech and disinformation posted on social media as useful data points that can be used to monitor citizens, or even foreigners applying for visas.

As for why Twitter, which has previously removed content from Presidents Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, is finally standing up to Trump, there is a simple explanation: the tide is finally turning, and many who have been silent may be feeling it is finally safe to be openly critical.

Corporations are coming out in support of Black Lives Matter. Celebrities are participating in George Floyd protests (as long as selfies can be posted afterwards). It is now acceptable at the highest levels of power to make fun of Trump’s obesity or give him nicknames like “President Tweety”.

Trump’s absurd comments that he is prepared to sic the “most vicious dogs” on protesters outside the White House have invited comparisons to Mr Burns, the wealthy evil character in the “The Simpsons” animation, famous for his command – “release the hounds”. All this would be amusing if the country were not in the midst of a pandemic, burning with social unrest, and struggling with record unemployment.

So, yes, there is reason to question the relevance of Section 230. And yes, social media corporations wield power in ways that are anti-democratic, like Trump says in his executive order. But beyond that, it is all theatrics.

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Trump is what philosopher Harry Frankfurt would call a bullshitter, someone different from a mere liar. According to Frankfurt, a liar still acknowledges the existence of the truth, if only to distract us from it.

A bullshitter, on the other hand, no longer cares about the truth and is only interested in creating impressions. These may have been enough to get Trump elected in 2016 (with a little help from Cambridge Analytica and Russia, which is now trying to take advantage of the George Floyd protests). But perhaps some of his bullshit is finally catching up with him.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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TikTok’s Taking a New Approach to Promoting its Live Stream Shopping Tools in the US

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TikTok’s Taking a New Approach to Promoting its Live Stream Shopping Tools in the US

While user interest thus far has been relatively low, TikTok continues to push ahead with its live-stream commerce initiatives, in the hopes that it can replicate the success that it’s seen with such in China in other markets around the world.

After scaling back its live commerce push in Europe, due to various teething problems TikTok’s now taking a new approach in the US, where it will reportedly partner with established live shopping network TalkShopLive to boost awareness of its shopping broadcasts.

TalkShopLive hosts an expanding variety of live shopping streams, covering a range of topics and product categories, and is steadily becoming a popular online product discovery and shopping destination. The platform doesn’t share specific user numbers, but it did note last year that sales made via TalkShopLive broadcasts were increasing at a rate of around 85% month-over-month.

That’s largely been led by an array of popular celebrities signing on to sell goods via the app, including Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, Dolly Parton, Alicia Keys and more.

TalkShopLive

TikTok will presumably look to form a new partnership with TalkShopLive that will see its own live shopping broadcasts cross-posted to the platform, which would then help it reach more engaged, active shoppers, and further promote its live-stream commerce offerings to this group.

At the same time, TikTok’s also partnering with various influencer agencies to get more popular creators on board with its live shopping tools.

As reported by Rest of World:

“TikTok is partnering with influencer agencies around the world, hoping to build a robust live community with a culture of gifting that can become the app’s next revenue stream. Rest of World spoke to agents based in China, the Middle East, the U.S., and the U.K. — all of whom confirmed that they’re working with TikTok to train their community in the best way to gain an audience, and solicit gifts.”

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So on one hand, TikTok’s looking to maximize reach to people who are looking to shop, as opposed to those coming to its app for entertainment, while on the other, it’s working with influencers to help them understand how they can use live shopping broadcasts to make more money in the app.

That’s a much different approach to how TikTok looked to build its live shopping team in the UK, with its aggressive approach to promoting the option eventually turning away both potential partners and shoppers alike.

TikTok has, however, seen success with live shopping in Asian markets, with its live-stream commerce tools seeing growth in Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. 

It’s just the western markets that need to catch up – but will live-stream commerce ever catch on in non-Asian regions? And if not, what’s the difference between the two approaches that’s seen it go massive with some audiences, but flop for others?

Live-stream commerce is huge in China, where the local version of TikTok, called Douyin, has become a key conduit in helping connect streamers to revenue opportunities.

That spells opportunity for social apps – but thus far, TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube have all been forced to dial back their live-stream commerce efforts based on lukewarm audience response.

But TikTok needs to make it happen. The challenge for TikTok is that it can’t insert pre and mid-roll ads into its short video clips, which makes creator revenue share more difficult, as it can’t then directly attribute each ad to the relative performance of a creators’ clip.

That’s not to say that TikTok’s not making money – TikTok brought in $990 million in revenue in Europe alone last year. But without a system to pass on a relevant percentage of that income to creators, eventually, questions will get asked, and like Vine before it, the top stars will want to know why TikTok is making billions on the back of their videos, while they’re fed comparatively tiny amounts from the same.

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Again, it’s live-stream commerce that’s been TikTok’s savior in China.

Douyin’, generated $119 billion worth of product sales via live broadcasts in 2021, a 7x increase year-over-year, while the number of users engaging with eCommerce live-streams exceeded 384 million, close to half of the platform’s user base.

Overall, the Chinese live-stream commerce sector brought in over $300 billion in 2021, which is almost half of the entire US retail eCommerce market.

It makes sense, then, why TikTok is so keen to ‘make fetch happen’ in western nations as well – but increasingly, it seems as though western users just aren’t interested in buying from streamers online.

The Middle East is showing promise. According to one report, some agencies are gaining traction with popular streamers in the Middle East, which shows that this is not an Asia-only trend. That’s likely buoyed TikTok’s hopes, which may be part of this new push, but it still has its work cut out for it in getting widespread take-up in more regions.

It is possible, of course, and it may still become a bigger thing at some stage. But right now, it’s hard to see how TikTok’s going to get over the initial adoption hump, and gain momentum with its live-stream commerce offerings.

But via initiatives like these, it might, and if it can, that could be a huge boost for TikTok’s broader expansion plans. Because with YouTube gaining traction with Shorts, and adding its own monetization pathway with Shorts ads, you can bet that the top creators are looking in YouTube’s direction as a means to make real money from their creativity.

In essence, TikTok needs live commerce to become a transferable trend – but whether it can make it so remains the key question.

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But if it can, that will open up a range of new considerations, for many brands.

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