The late American businesswoman Leona Helmsley will always be remembered for reportedly saying, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” The touching sentiment earned the hotel tycoon the unofficial title, “Queen of Mean.”
Today, the “little people” not only continue to pay taxes, but often face greater scrutiny when it comes to facing moderation on social media. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook operated a little known program dubbed “XCheck,” which allowed celebrities, politicians and other VIPs to essentially elude the kinds of moderation policies that the average user on the social network might face.
Also known as “cross check,” the program was reportedly created to provide an extra layer of review involving high-profile users – but it has apparently allowed the rich and famous or powerful to side-step actual enforcement. With some 2.8 billion users worldwide, Facebook has no shortage of troubling content that can include misinformation, and the social network has relied on its massive teams of contractors to monitor and even moderate that content.
According to the paper of record, banning or punishing a user for a particular post(s) is reportedly more complex when they are a VIP. XCheck essentially was a proverbial safety valve of sorts that allowed Facbook to stall or even forego taking actions – including enforcement of its policies – when it involved someone “important.” This was meant to avoid controversy for Facebook.
The process has been described as protecting millions of VIP users today, and it suggests that there may be two sets of rules for users of the platform.
“Facebook’s recently revealed VIP ‘Xcheck’ program is yet another brick in the wall of social discrimination that has divided America the last few years – or decades or centuries,” said James R. Bailey, professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business.
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“It erodes trust in tech companies that, in truth, have become the equivalent of public utilities,” warned Bailey. “Why should one’s status determine the voice they have on a platform like Facebook, which has always assumed the mantle of ‘vox populi?’ There’s just one reason: money. People want to read what Cardi B has to say, and they want it unedited. That means more people click through, which means advertising revenue. How cyclical. The elite already have plenty of wavelengths. How dare Facebook grant the illuminati access they deny you and me.”
It would also seem that Facebook has indeed set a different set of rules for the rich and famous.
“From a business perspective it should be understood that Facebook is trying to use the power of influencers’ opinions to attract a more recurring audience, even though in many cases that could lead to a more polarizing environment,” said Eduardo Durazo, professor and coordinator of the Triple Degree Master of Business Administration at CETYS University.
“It is expected that famous people generate opinions that can drive public discussions, so in enabling these leaders to have a broader scope of liberty they are creating the conditions to put out a more likely to engage conversation in its platform,” added Durazo.
The question is whether there will be any implications for Facebook, and whether the “average” user can truly trust Facebook going forward?
“Uneven rules of the game can lead to brand disengagement, since polarizing opinions can also create a hostile environment to interact,” Durzao explained. “Even if Facebook algorithms feed its users with kind-like news and comments, information flows through many digital channels, so eventually users can opt for other platforms to interact that are not biased in its treatment of users.”
It isn’t likely that even with this disclosure that much will be done. The “little people” will continue to face greater scrutiny than the more famous users on Facebook and other social platforms.
However, Durzao suggested more could be done. “With these policies Facebook steers away from a digital democracy perspective in the sense that the deliberation of the public subjects must be equal for every user, and democracy is still a value cherished by U.S. audiences of all the political sides. Facebook should be more transparent with it’s user rules and algorithms so that everyone has a clear understanding of what to expect when engaging in a discussion with a public figure or a common user.”