The PR BlogPublic RelationsPR StrategyDe-Platforming as a Public Relations Strategy

De-Platforming as a Public Relations Strategy

To de-platform or not to de-platform—that is the question.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

Is de-plat­form­ing a sound pub­lic rela­tions strategy?

De-plat­form­ing is one of the most aggress­ive tools that an online mod­er­at­or can utilise. 

Should an online mod­er­at­or use this tool, wheth­er it’s a social net­work restrict­ing user accounts or an organ­isa­tion delet­ing com­ments? The short answer is … maybe.

When is de-plat­form­ing a sound course of action from a PR perspective?

Analysing the Situation

Whether or not an organ­isa­tion should attempt to de-plat­form depends on how your organ­isa­tion would answer three questions:

  • Is the de-plat­form­ing groun­ded in a pub­licly access­ible policy?
  • Is the de-plat­form­ing a response to abuse of gen­er­al demo­crat­ic prin­ciples or crim­in­al behaviour?
  • Will the PR effects of de-plat­form­ing hurt the organ­iz­a­tion both short- and long-term?

A Rational Understanding

By ask­ing three fun­da­ment­al ques­tions, you’ll get a sense of what kind of scen­ario your organ­isa­tion is deal­ing with. De-plat­form­ing is typ­ic­ally asso­ci­ated with raw emo­tion (anger, sad­ness, frus­tra­tion etc.), so it’s advis­able to approach the situ­ation rationally.

1. Is the de-platforming grounded in a publicly accessible policy?

Suppose a social net­work shuts down an account based on user beha­viour that viol­ates their terms of con­di­tions. In that case, in states that viol­ate laws or reg­u­la­tions, a social net­work has every prerog­at­ive to end that account.

Why have con­di­tions if they aren’t being enforced?

Afterwards, the sus­pen­ded user can press charges against the social net­work. Still, if the viol­a­tion is doc­u­mented and the terms of con­di­tions are law­fully com­pli­ant, there’s not much more to be said about such a termination.

This is a rel­ev­ant insight for PR depart­ments as well:

It’s good prac­tice to put great effort into your policies. Because you should mod­er­ate your online chan­nels fiercely, you should elim­in­ate unwanted sub­scribers on your email lists. You should remove com­ments that dis­respect the rules of engage­ment your brand has put forth. Delete, block, ban — whatever tools you have, use them.

And therein lies the prop­er under­stand­ing of chal­len­ging and com­plex mat­ters like these.

In your policies, you would­n’t state that you’re going to delete, block, or ban con­tent or users just because you feel like it. If you remove people because you can­not face their truths con­veyed fac­tu­ally and respect­fully, then you don’t have a troll prob­lem. You have a cul­tur­al man­age­ment prob­lem that you must address first.

2. Is the de-platforming a response to abuse of general democratic principles or criminal behaviour?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m firmly against can­cel cul­ture in gen­er­al — and de-plat­form­ing in particular.

Yes, loud minor­it­ies will fire each oth­er up and find safety in num­bers for oth­er­wise socially less accept­able pos­i­tions. Algorithmic fil­ter bubbles will gen­er­ate online echo cham­bers that amp­li­fy the band­wag­on effect.

But the uncom­fort­able hypo­thes­is here is that we can only grow as demo­crat­ic soci­et­ies if we col­lect­ively decide to hash these dif­fer­ences out using com­mu­nic­a­tion instead of violence.

In crude terms, com­mu­nic­a­tion and viol­ence are human­ity’s only tools for nego­ti­at­ing power. Violence — or the threat of it — has been a fun­da­ment­al real­ity through­out his­tory. And com­mu­nic­a­tion is the bed­rock of our civilisation. 

Violence, used as a form of nego­ti­at­ing power, is more pre­val­ent in our demo­crat­ic soci­et­ies than we might think. Refuse to com­ply with any form of demo­crat­ic legis­la­tion for long enough, how­ever subtle the refus­al, or how­ever minor the non-com­pli­ance, someone with a fire­arm and gov­ern­ment­al author­ity will even­tu­ally show up at your doorstep.

To mit­ig­ate peace (as in the absence of viol­ence) through com­mu­nic­a­tion must, by inher­ent design, be upheld by a major­ity pos­i­tion. This is also why demo­cracy is an act­ive state of affairs; demo­cracy must be rein­forced by its con­stitu­ents on a recur­rent basis.

In a demo­crat­ic soci­ety, can­celled cul­ture and de-plat­form expres­sions of viol­ence — not com­mu­nic­a­tion. They are inher­ently anti-demo­crat­ic measures. 

Yes, allow­ing groups with some­times anti-demo­crat­ic agen­das to com­mu­nic­ate freely exposes our demo­cra­cies to viol­ent altern­at­ives. But one would be mis­taken to think of demo­cra­cies as weak.
The cost of free­dom is pre­cisely that — a cost.

If someone is instig­at­ing viol­ence against demo­crat­ic prin­ciples nego­ti­ated via vari­ous forms of com­mu­nic­a­tion, the demo­cracy has been giv­en the full man­date of its con­stitu­ents to defend those prin­ciples — also with violence.

So, de-plat­form­ing is most def­in­itely a demo­crat­ic tool when com­mu­nic­a­tion breaks down and is replaced by viol­ence or instigation.

3. Will the PR effects of de-platforming hurt the organization both short- and long-term?

Deplatforming is a final pub­lic rela­tions chal­lenge. If the account own­er or con­tent cre­at­or feels wrong­fully pun­ished, that rela­tion­ship might escal­ate bey­ond repair imme­di­ately. Being de-plat­formed is often tied with a strong emo­tion­al response. 

Such a broken-down rela­tion­ship might scale socially if the account own­er is fol­lowed by like-minded peers who can become highly vocal and act­ive adversaries.

There is also con­sid­er­able poten­tial blow­back in decid­ing not to shut down a spe­cif­ic account. Many accounts, espe­cially polit­ic­al ones, cre­ate divi­sion and spark debates. When such reports step over the line, there will be blow­back from dis­gruntled interests either way.

Potentially adverse PR effects should be a sig­ni­fic­ant con­sid­er­a­tion in decid­ing when to de-plat­form and cre­ate and revise the pub­lic policy.

De-Platforming Scenarios

When con­sid­er­ing de-plat­form someone, you can use these scen­ari­os to determ­ine the right course of action:

Scenario 1 — “Should Twitter de-plat­form Donald Trump after the attack on Capitolium?”

Breach of pub­licly access­ible policy: YES
Abuse of demo­crat­ic prin­ciples or crim­in­al beha­viour: YES
Potential adverse PR effects: YES

Deplatforming is neces­sary, des­pite poten­tially harm­ful PR effects.

Scenario 2 — “Should sci­ence organ­isa­tions push to de-plat­form Flat Earth pro­pa­ganda accounts?”

Breach of pub­licly access­ible policy: YES
Abuse of demo­crat­ic prin­ciples or crim­in­al beha­viour: NO
Potential neg­at­ive PR effects: NO

Deplatforming is pos­sible, but it should be used with cau­tion. It’s gen­er­ally bet­ter to incor­por­ate sys­tems for warn­ings and tem­por­ary suspensions.

Scenario 3 — “Should Facebook de-plat­form whis­tleblower Frances Haugen?”

Breach of pub­licly access­ible policy: NO
Abuse of demo­crat­ic prin­ciples or crim­in­al beha­viour: NO
Potential neg­at­ive PR effects: YES

Not enough grounds for de-plat­form­ing, but the policy should prob­ably be revised.

Scenario 4 — “Should Instagram shad­ow­ban Influencers using vari­ous soft­ware to gain followers?”

Breach of pub­licly access­ible policy: YES
Abuse of demo­crat­ic prin­ciples or crim­in­al beha­viour: NO
Potential neg­at­ive PR effects: YES

The policy might need revi­sion, but it’s often more likely that parts of the com­munity or oth­er interest groups don’t respect your policy. De-plat­form­ing must be weighed against poten­tially neg­at­ive PR effects. A long-term effort to restore respect in your policy should be a priority.

Scenario 5 — “Should gov­ern­ments advise social net­works to close down ques­tion­able accounts?”

Breach of pub­licly access­ible policy: NO
Abuse of demo­crat­ic prin­ciples or crim­in­al beha­viour: MAYBE
Potential neg­at­ive PR effects: MAYBE

We don’t exactly know how to deal with this scen­ario yet — but legis­lat­ive pres­sures are build­ing up glob­ally, and it’s mov­ing in the dir­ec­tion of mak­ing the plat­form pro­vider account­able for the actions per­pet­rated by its users. However, the exist­ing policy must be revised.

Scenario 6 — “Should algorithms and fil­ters use AI to auto­mat­ic­ally detect and de-plat­form accounts?”

Breach of a sound and pub­licly access­ible policy: MAYBE
Abuse of demo­crat­ic prin­ciples or crim­in­al beha­viour: MAYBE
Potential adverse PR effects: PROBABLY

Today, mass mod­er­a­tion is a monu­ment­al tech­no­lo­gic­al chal­lenge. Automated fil­ters are con­stantly get­ting it wrong both ways, but they might be our only way of man­aging lar­ger volumes. Warnings, tem­por­ary sus­pen­sions, and oth­er tools are prob­ably prefer­able to de-platforming.

A Complex PR Matter

De-plat­form­ing is, without a doubt, a com­plex mat­ter in PR.

On the one hand, we have a rampant can­cel cul­ture that hurts free speech (and, by exten­sion, all stra­tegic PR work) in the long term.

On the oth­er hand, organ­isa­tions must have integ­rity and fight back whenev­er their brands are attacked.

To make the situ­ation even more com­plex, we have a prob­lem where autonom­ous tech giants estab­lish rules as they see fit.

So, when it comes to de-plat­form­ing, the answer still has to be … maybe.

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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