Blog PostsPublic RelationsPR StrategyUsing De-Platforming as a Public Relations Strategy

Using De-Platforming as a Public Relations Strategy

To deplatform or not to deplatform — 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 utilize. Should an online moderator be allowed to use this tool, whether it’s a social network restricting user accounts or an organization deleting comments?

The short answer is yes.

Is de-platforming a commonly advisable course of action from a PR perspective?

Well, it depends on three factors:

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

1. Is the de-platforming well-grounded in a sound and 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 deplatforming 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 civilization.

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 deplatforming are 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 when creating and revising 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 — “the Donald Trump scenario.”

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

Action: Deplatforming is necessary, despite potentially negative PR effects.

Scenario 2 — “okay for society, not okay for service”

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

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

Scenario 3 — “removal of uncomfortable accounts”

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

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

Scenario 4 — “disrespecting the existing policy.”

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

Action: 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 — “keeping up with legislative pressure.”

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

Action: 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 100% clear that the existing policy must be revised.

Scenario 6 — “managing large volume moderation”

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

Action: Today, moderation is a massive technological challenge. Automated bots and 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 deplatforming.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)

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Avatar of Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.org/
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication 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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