Baron Pineda Discusses the Challenges of Social Media Content Standards

November 17, 2020
Scott Wargo
Portrait of Professor Baron Pineda
Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Professor of Anthropology Baron Pineda will present “Grey Areas: Universal Standards, Cultural Difference and Local Contexts in Social Media Content Moderation” as part of the Tea At Two Virtual Series presented by the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School. His talk is from 2-3p.m., Thursday, November 19.

Pineda will discuss in his presentation how social media platforms must contend with the cultural variations of global users while trying to create and enforce universal standards. 

Pineda was a member of Facebook’s Data Transparency Advisory Group, which assessed Facebook’s methods of measuring and reporting on its Community Standards enforcement policies. The group, whose work was coordinated by the Justice Collaboratory, released its report in May 2019.


What challenges do cultural differences present for social media platforms?

I think it important to see the rise of social media platforms in the broader context of the rise of information technology and “tech” more generally. Often there is an initial period of promise and hope that is followed by disillusionment and disappointment. Think about the arc that the discussion about video games has gone through over the last 40 years—from wonderful new toys to corrupter of young people’s minds.

Social media finds itself in this moment on the downside of one of these valleys as it is blamed for many societal ills—sometimes deservedly and sometimes not. How these perceptions of it are formed and take shape are of course political but they are also deeply cultural and they need to be studied through a global and cross-cultural lens.

How do cultural differences affect the way people interact with and utilize social media?

Social media opens up the possibility to share images and messages with a much broader range of people but it does not leave behind norms about how information about oneself, one’s community, and even one’s country should be shared. But these norms are unmistakably challenged by the possibilities and perils of social media and, for better or for worse, these norms are either changed or reaffirmed.

Recently, I have been in dialogue with Sarah Vieweg (an anthropologist at Twitter) and Adam Hodges (a sociocultural linguist at the University of Colorado) and they have written, for example, about how the use of social media in the context of the Persian Gulf is deeply shaped by very different expectations of privacy, views about modesty and (more collectivist) constructions of personhood that constrain the choices that people make about what pictures and message to post.

Sarah and Adam and their colleagues have written about how people in Saudi Arabia (7th in the world for per capita use of Facebook) will very carefully create multiple accounts and multiple groups so that they can more tightly control how their images and messages can circulate.

Why is it important for social media platforms to understand how cultures differ globally as they look to moderate content for users around the world?

Whenever an institution puts itself in a place of being an arbiter or a judge, the ability to establish its own legitimacy in this role is a key to success. There is nothing new about this. Private companies have always had to balance local, national, and international standards as they operate.

Social media is a particularly interesting industry in this context, however, because they are in a certain sense deterritorialized, and participation in them as a “user’’ is (arguably) elective. I think these features, among others, have led to the legitimacy problems that social media companies are encountering. The legitimacy to ‘‘govern’’ is going to be enjoyed in the most meaningful way when it is part of a collaborative and democratic process. That is the challenge … one that needs to be met with a truly cross-cultural strategy.

Are there cultural distinctions within regions of the United States that might influence the way people interact with social media?

This question reminds me of a meme that has been circulating since the election in which an electoral map of the United States is displayed (it mostly has tiny red dots spread over the largest portions of the map but with giant blue bubbles in the big cities) and the caption is ‘Land does not vote.’ 

There is a lot of talk about polarization in the United States right now and a case could be made for the rural/urban divide being the most stark.  I don’t have a good answer for how this happened (or even whether this is necessarily a huge departure from previous trends) but I think that as modern social science looks at how religion, race, class, gender, etc., plays into this contemporary reality we must also examine how these traditional factors intersect in emergent ways with social media.

In your research, you also look at human rights and global indigenous politics, which is the subject of your most recent book called Indigenous Conventions: Human Rights and Cultural Politics at the United Nations. Why did this capture your interest as an anthropologist?

In my Human Rights class at Oberlin, I always do an exercise with students in which I get everyone to talk about the ways in which particular cultural forms travel the globe—whether they be business suits, eating utensils, religions, legal systems, musical instruments, baseball, etc. What I like about that exercise is that it prepares us to talk about transitions from local to global and back again.

In the UN project, I am interested in the way that the idea of being indigenous travels from some areas where it is deeply entrenched (like the Americas and Australia) to other areas where it is newer and more unresolved. I am also interested in the seeming mismatch between indigenous peoples (who usually have a fraught relationship with the official nation-states of the world) and the United Nations system (a club of nation-states).

For me having the privilege to observe how this context is negotiated is fascinating and inspiring.

Is there any intersection between your research on human rights and indigenous political issues and your research on the effect of cultural differences on social media content?

Yes. I have been working recently on how social media platforms make and enforce the rules that govern the platforms and I see this is a ‘cultural form’ itself that starts in the context of the USA and now is being asked and expected to cover the entire globe and billions of tweets in hundreds of languages. How content moderation is adapted and not adapted to address this pretense of universal coverage is a really interesting subject for me.

It is also a subject that has fascinating parallels with the Universal Human Rights movement that since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 has been directed out of the United Nations. Both have to struggle with the desire to have a uniform set of standards that will apply to all people (on the basis of being human, not just citizens of a particular country) while also taking into account cultural differences and global inequalities.

I think that the platforms can learn a lot from the human rights movement both figuratively (as an interesting comparative case) but also literally (as an already established set of institutions from whom they could invite help, scrutiny, and, yes, even regulation).

You have expressed an interest in developing ways to study social media anthropologically. What might that look like and how could that improve how people interact with social media?

The trademark methods of anthropology are participant-observation and ethnography but these methods are geared towards intensive face-to-face interaction rather than surveys or experimental approaches. How to use face-to-face methodologies in a digital world? The challenges are unmistakable but the need is very apparent to me.

We just went through an election in the USA in which many people on both sides can’t imagine how somebody on the other side could possibly have cast the vote that they just cast. The anthropological ideal of putting yourself in another person’s shoes (what we call an ‘emic’ perspective) has never been more important and it needs to be done online.

I have benefitted from many collaborations over the years on this and other work with Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist at Columbia University who has used ethnography to study everything from informal drug, gun, and sex economies to the lifestyles of the young and wealthy of Manhattan.

I also have enjoyed working through these issues with Oberlin students, particularly the Tech and Trust team that I put together at Oberlin this summer. Megan Grabill, Carolina Johnson, Rena Wang, and Chris Schmucki and I worked hard on these issues and they continue to assist me as I write a journal article on content moderation and human rights. We were able to interact during the summer with people at Columbia, the University of Chicago, and Twitter.

In addition to working with students, I have really enjoyed participating in meetings and workshops over the last few years in which people from industry and academia, in a pretty unprecedented way, have gathered to examine these issues. Some of these meetings have been organized by my colleagues at the Social Media Governance Initiative of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale University Law School.

It is important to understand deeply how people integrate social media into their lives and from there we can continue to work on making these platforms healthier.

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