People are going to make a lot of interpretations and analyses about the story of this game: A violent psychopath unites disparate pockets of violent psychopaths and becomes their entertainer and their leader.
Tyreen Calypso and her brother Troy are the biggest social media stars in a lawless and murder-filled galaxy, far, far away. In the setting of Borderlands, there are no laws and no authorities or institutions to enforce them.
Third party hosts and platforms have endured criticism over the last decade, either for their failures to stop odious behavior (especially when it yields revenue) or for their treatment of less profitable users. Does Borderlands 3 paint a grim picture of the downsides of a social media ecosystem without independent platforms? In doing so, does it clarify the role and responsibility of these platforms?
Stream Queen Tyreen
Before the player joins the story, Tyreen builds up a following of murderous bandits through her social media presence. By providing entertaining live streams and a sense of community, she creates a cult (“Children of the Vault,” or COV). The player is tasked with opposing Tyreen and stopping her quest for opening a mystical vault that will grant her the power to destroy all life in the galaxy. As her social media follower count grows, her resources to thwart the player and to achieve her goal also grow.
As a fictional character in a fictional setting, Tyreen’s social media ecosystem is very different from ours. One factor is obviously absent from Tyreen’s social media: a third-party hosting platform. Tyreen doesn’t stream on some fictional version of Twitch or Mixer, and she doesn’t upload videos to YouTube or Vine or Twitter. She apparently owns all of the hardware and does her own broadcasting.
Murder in the Safe Harbor
As the behavior of various influencers, personalities, content creators, streamers, and others who make use of recent accessible broadcast technology comes under scrutiny, the hosts and platforms for this technology also comes under scrutiny. Even though there has been substantial criticism of some of the most popular social media stars, there has also been a fraction of that criticism directed towards the platforms that allow the behavior to continue (and profit as it does).
In our current social media ecosystem, the platforms we know and use and sometimes love have their own concerns. Among other things, they have to worry about whether they can be in trouble for the things that people do while using their platform.
There is a law to help platforms. Title II of the DMCA, the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act, found at 17 USC 512, allows platforms, hosts, or service providers to avoid getting in trouble (“safe harbor” protections) if they meet some requirements (such as taking down material that infringes copyright, not profiting from it, and banning repeat infringers).
Despite the criticism of these third party hosts, I still expect that any platform would be very quick to ban the account of Tyreen, who regularly broadcasts videos of murders and explicitly offers rewards to her followers for killing her enemy (the player). In addition to the very obvious criminal laws around murder, uploading content depicting illegal and/or obscene acts would certainly be against any Terms of Service agreement. According to law professor Daphne Keller, there isn’t currently a law that governs the obligations of a platform when a user uploads content depicting a crime. There was an effort in 1996 to better govern this kind of thing, but almost the entire title of an act was struck down by the Supreme Court on the assessment that it violated the 1st amendment.
In the US, social media professionals like Tyreen are often at a crossroads of several areas of law: copyright, trademark, consumer protection/ advertising, and telecommunications. These people need to build and maintain a fan base while abiding by FTC disclosure guidelines, working within the constraints of the structure established by the FCC, and avoiding infringing the copyrights and trademarks of other businesses and artists.
Tyreen doesn’t have to worry about any of that, of course…
Mad Moxxi is a Guerrilla Genius
Moxxi is a successful entrepreneur and business owner in her own right, and she recognizes that Tyreen cannot be stopped by the kinds of methods that we might use in the US. There is no third-party host that might be liable for Tyreen’s behavior, so there is no authority that can ban her or even respond to a notice-and-takedown request. Even if there was a Borderlands Trademark Office, Tyreen wouldn’t seek to protect her trademarks because that doesn’t align with her business strategy (she’s hoping to destroy the galaxy in the time it would take to get a trademark registered). And in a setting where guns and grenades are purchased from vending machines, there isn’t any kind of recognition of consumer protection law.
However, the telecommunications infrastructure is unregulated (like everything else), and Moxxi sees that as an opportunity. Maybe Moxxi read Lessig and applied her understanding of architecture as law. Moxxi assigns the player the task of finding and sabotaging the broadcasting devices throughout the galaxy. As the player goes to the terminals of these broadcast antennae and changes the channels, Tyreen is unable to reach her audience, leaving her effectively de-platformed (or “cancelled”).
I appreciate the (perhaps accidental) fact that accessing these transmitters requires repeated use of the platforming mechanic: It’s platforming to de-platform. **
Moxxi’s de-platforming strategy is effective, and it underscores the limited options available in the social media ecosystem of the story. It also shows what is possible in the extremes of lawlessness: the worst and most dangerous people are more difficult to stop, and the methods of stopping them are available to anyone, to be used against anyone. It’s a kind of Hobbsiean state-of-nature, but it turns out that both the lives and the livestreams are nasty, brutish, and short.
The absence of a third party hosting platform facilitates Tyreen’s ability to achieve her nefarious goals. She can broadcast what she wants and gets 100% of her revenue—that’s definitely an appealing concept to anyone looking to upload, post, or stream. But she’s also a threat to the existence of the galaxy, tries to kill you, personally, and the only way to de-platform her is literal warfare. The only way that a platform can provide a better world than this is if the platform takes effective measures to avoid such extreme scenarios. I don’t think we’ve seen any content creators aim for galactic destruction yet, but the rising generation is nothing if not ambitious. As social media becomes increasingly lucrative and legally complex, the next year might be a good time for platforms to carefully and seriously evaluate their business strategies, visions, goals, and values.
Next time, maybe I’ll evaluate whether Claptrap violated 17 USC 1201 by salvaging dead robots to build a new friend.
De-platforming is a term that means “to remove someone from a position of broadcasting, or to remove or severely diminish the ability of a person to broadcast.” It often implies denying a person access to an established host or platform, and most often for reasons related to behavior or the content of a message.
Incidentally, Borderlands 3 introduces a new playable mechanic to the game: the ability to climb designated ledges. As in the Assassin’s Creed series and the Mirror’s Edge series, this mechanic can go by a few names: parkour, free-running, free-climbing, mantling (the term I heard most at Gearbox press conferences for this game), or platforming (a more archaic and less accurate term, but the one which suits my purposes here).