Sarah T. Roberts: Social Media and Politics

Associate professor of UCLA Information Studies weighs in on Trump’s executive order on social media.

Sarah T. Roberts, UCLA associate professor of information studies, has been featured in several media outlets, speaking on the recent issues of social media and messaging on their platforms that broadcast political agendas.

Roberts, who co-directs the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry (C2I2), was featured on NBCNews.com, saying that President Trump’s recent executive order that regulates the ability of social media companies to remove content based on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996

Professor Roberts observed that the executive order will take away social media companies’ power to crack down on “crisis actor” conspiracy theorists and trolls, who target victims of tragedies.

“To be sure, if anyone has benefited from this discretion on the part of platforms, it has been Trump himself, who routinely breaks the rules of engagement that are enforced on other users on his platform of choice — Twitter — and does so with impunity,” Roberts said to NBC News.

Professor Roberts commented further on Trump’s use of social media, in particular, campaign ads on Facebook that featured an upside-down red triangle, which was also used by the Nazi regime to designate political prisoners and individuals who had rescued Jewish people. Facebook removed the posts, but only after more than a million users had viewed it.

“So in a way, it’s kind of closing the barn door after all of the horses have gotten out of the barn,” she said to NPR. 

Roberts noted that the Facebook posts were beneficial to the Trump campaign, regardless of their eventual removal.

“They get to circulate the ads for some period of time, and then they get to capitalize on a narrative that I believe to be demonstrably false, that they are somehow censored or impeded from sharing their perspectives on social media,” Roberts said in the NPR interview.

Professor Roberts also commented on the accidental deletion of statements that criticized the Chinese Community Party on YouTube. She stated that techcompanies are not always forthcoming about how social media platforms engage with the public regarding their methods of moderation, and said that these methods are more haphazardly created than platforms would want to admit.

“I think they’d like us to all imagine that these processes are seamless and infallible,” says Roberts in an article in The Verge

Professor Roberts served as a consultant on “The Cleaners,” an award-winning documentary on commercial content moderation in the Philippines. In 2018, she convened the first known symposium on “All Things in Moderation” at UCLA, gathering scholars, experts, journalists, and other stakeholders to closely examine the social, political, legal, and cultural impacts of commercial content moderation.

Photo by Stella Kalinina