Doctor SpinPublic 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.

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?

Table of Contents

    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 any 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 a great deal of effort into your policies. Because you should moderate your online channels fiercely, you should get rid of 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 at your disposal, 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’re unable to 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 behavior?

    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 yielding 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 be thinking. 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 for 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 to 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, it’s clear that 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 types of 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 is hurting 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.

    Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)

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    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwerhttps://www.doctorspin.net/
    Jerry Silfwer, aka 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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