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Deplatforming from a public relations perspective

To deplatform or not to deplatform — that is the question.

Is deplatforming just wrong?

In digital strategy, deplatforming is one of the most aggressive tools that an organization can utilize.

Should a social network be allowed to shut down the account of a political voice? Should, in fact, any privately owned company be allowed to ban, block, and delete user content in their earned, owned, and shared channels?

The short answer is yes.

Is deplatforming, then, a commonly advisable course of action from a PR perspective?

The slightly longer answer is: It depends on whether that deplatforming is a) well-grounded in a sound and publicly accessible policy, b) if there’s abuse of general democratic principles or criminal behavior, or c) if the PR effects are potentially negative.

A. A sound and publicly accessible policy

If the social network shuts down an account based on user behavior that violates their terms of conditions, conditions that are not themselves violating any laws or regulations, the social network has every right to put an end to that account.

Afterwards, the suspended user is allowed to press charges against the social network, but if the violation is clearly 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 actually 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 are disrespecting of the rules of engagement that 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 that are uncomfortable. Or that you just don’t agree with. Or that brings forth constructive criticism.

If you remove people based on the fact that you’re unable to face their truths conveyed in a factual and respectful manner, then you don’t have a troll problem. You have a cultural management problem that must be addressed first.

B. Abuse of democratic principles or criminal behaviors

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 amplifies the bandwagon effect.

But the uncomfortable axiom 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 — is a fundamental reality throughout human history. And communication is the bedrock of our civilization.

Also note that violence, 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 a democracy literally is an active state of affairs; a democracy must be reinforced by its constituents on a recurrent basis.

In a democratic society, cancel culture and deplatforming are therefore expressions of violence — not communication. They are inherently anti-democratic measures.

Yes, by allowing groups with sometimes anti-democratic agendas to communicate freely, we expose our democracies for violent alternatives.

But one would be mistaken to think of democracies as weak.
The cost of freedom is high.

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, deplatforming is most definitely a democratic tool — to be used when communication breaks down and is being replaced by violence or its instigation.

C. Potentially negative PR effects

Deplatforming is a definitive public relations challenge. If the account owner or content creator feels wrongfully punished, that relationship might escalate beyond repair immediately. Being deplatformed 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 turn into highly vocal and active adversaries.

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

Potentially negative PR effects should be a major consideration not only in deciding on when to deplatform or not, but also when creating and revising the public policy.

Deplatforming scenarios

When considering to deplatform someone, or to prepare a deplatforming strategy, 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 behavior: YES
Potential negative 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 behavior: 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 behavior: NO
Potential negative PR effects: YES

Action: Not enough grounds for deplatforming, 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 behavior: 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. Deplatforming 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 behavior: 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 behavior: MAYBE
Potential negative 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.

Avatar of Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer aka Doctor Spin is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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