It’s clear lawmakers' appetites for limiting ubiquitous explicit content, especially on sections of the internet easily accessible to youths, is nearly extinguished. If America does want to mitigate the social harms of such content, private entities must be part of the solution.
Social media company Tumblr took a large step in that direction last week by censoring adult content on its platform, banning all pornography from its user channels. Its troubles started last month when the app was taken off of the Apple App Store after child pornography was found on the network. Although its decision is more likely the result of legal and public pressure rather than altruism, taking the broader step to eliminate all explicit content shows positive movement.
In the past year, platform companies have come under scrutiny for their role in exacerbating echo chambers, entrenching political polarization, enabling election interference by a hostile foreign power, and even inciting genocide. More than 2 billion people around the world use the platforms of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and, to a lesser extent, Tumblr — more than double the population of the world’s most populous country.
In the meantime, companies like Facebook have consistently withheld compromising details about the insecurity of their platforms and have evaded public accountability in doing so. However, the approach of Tumblr, though imperfect, shows most importantly a willingness to accept responsibility for the health of digital citizens in a largely unlegislated and unmonitored public sphere.
The pornography industry, once opposed by the general public and political parties alike, is now pervasive. That comes with social impairments. As Tim Alberta writes for Politico, “There is surefire sociological evidence of its exacerbating influence on those most susceptible — people predisposed to violence, for instance, or misogyny or child abuse.” He continues by pointing out correlation between adult content and abusive relationships.
While the algorithms attempting to automate content removal on Tumblr are not perfect and will need significant tweaking, taking a stance in banning pornographic content is an important principled step in the right direction for not just limiting dangerous content but more broadly in assuming responsibility for all content on platforms.5 comments on this story
Beyond pornography, platform companies must be proactive instead of evasive, assuming responsibility for the well-being of their users. Companies have largely failed to install robust teams trained in ethics and philosophy to consider the broader implications of their work. In addition to hiring more content evaluators trained in every language on the platform, they must critically re-evaluate their content policies in light of an evolving user base and political landscape.
Doing so will ensure that the benefits of social media are maintained and enjoyed for years to come while dangerous consequences are appropriately addressed.