Platform policy and online abuse: Understanding differential protections for public figures

Cover, R., Henry, N., Huynh, T. B., Gleave, J., Grechyn, V., & Greenfield, S. (2024). Platform policy and online abuse: Understanding differential protections for public figures. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies.


Open access: Yes

Notes: Public figures are often targeted by online abuse campaigns, which tend to bypass content moderation responses due to their visibility. In this context, Cover and colleagues set to explore 31 digital platform policies concerning online abuse against public figures. By reviewing the policies, the authors found a variety of approaches that depend on the platform focus—for instance, while Facebook quotes public interest as a grounding principle in responding to online abuse against figures, TikTok argues that severe harassment against them is not permitted. Moreover, they identified two lines of justification platforms deploy to ground their differentiated responses to online abuse of public figures: newsworthiness and public interest. As a response, they argue that “the concept of public interest, as applied to platform content regulation, may appear vague and subject to alteration, making it ethically questionable. We argue that new ethical approaches are required to adequately address online abuse against public figures with a focus on mitigating harms, including clear and unambiguous policies and transparent practices” (p. 11).

Abstract: Public figures are subject to high rates of online abuse than everyday users. This article presents findings from a study on digital platforms’ higher threshold for protecting public figures in contrast to everyday users. Presenting a summary of extant literature on the experience, impact and harms of online abuse of public figures, we analyse 31 platform terms of service and related policies to understand the extent to which platforms openly differentiate between public figures and other users. We focus on platforms’ use of ‘newsworthiness’ and ‘public interest’ to justify the differential threshold. Using a cultural-informed approach, we analyse platforms’ reliance on ‘newsworthiness’ and ‘public interest’ justifications to argue that these justifications are utilised without regard for the histories, risk assessment, ethics and labour-intensive processes in which the concepts of newsworthiness and public interest became familiar among more traditional media forms such as news organisations.

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