From Smirking Chimp
The beautiful dream of an open and free internet, serving as a global agora of unlimited free speech to provide for more democratic participation, has crashed and burned one more time. The mob attack on the US Capitol was incited and planned over Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other digital media platforms, with a tragic nudge from the president of the United States. The gripping images of a ransacking mob, gunshots and Congress members cowering on the floor of the House of Representatives is a warning to us all.
How did we arrive here?
Since the birth of the Big Tech media platforms 15 years ago -- let's drop the friendly-sounding misnomer of "social" media -- democracies around the world have been subjected to a grand experiment: can a nation's news and information infrastructure, the lifeblood of any democracy, be dependent on digital technologies that allow a global free speech zone of unlimited audience size, combined with algorithmic (non-human) curation of massive volumes of mis/disinformation, that can be spread with unprecedented ease and reach?
The evidence has become frighteningly clear that this experiment has veered off course, like a Frankenstein monster marauding across the landscape.
Facebook is no longer simply a "social networking" website -- it is the largest media giant in the history of the world, a combination publisher and broadcaster with approximately 2.6 billion regular users, plus billions more on the Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Instagram. A mere 100 pieces of COVID-19 misinformation on Facebook were shared 1.7 million times and had 117 million views -- far more daily viewers than the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Fox News, ABC and CNN combined.
The Facebook-Google-Twitter media giants have been mis-used frequently by bad political operatives for disinformation campaigns in over 70 countries to undermine elections, even helping elect a quasi-dictator in the Philippines; and to widely livestream child abusers, pornographers and the Christchurch mass murderer of Muslims in New Zealand. How can we unite to take action on climate change when a majority of YouTube climate change videos denies the science, and 70% of what YouTube's two billion users watch comes from its sensation-saturated recommendation algorithms?
Traditional media are subject to certain laws and regulations, including a degree of liability over what they push into the world. While there is much to criticize about mainstream media and corporate broadcasters, at least they use humans to curate the news, and pick and choose what's in and out of the newstream. That results in a degree of accountability, including potentially libel lawsuits and other forms of Madisonian-like checks and balances.
But with Big Tech media, it's more like the wild wild West, with no sheriff. Facebook-Google-Twitter use robot algorithm curators that are on automatic pilot, much like killer drones for which no human bears responsibility or liability. That's dangerous in a democracy.
So non-human curation, when combined with unlimited audience size and frictionless amplification, has completely failed as a foundation for a democracy's media infrastructure. It's time to hit reset in a major way, not only to save our democracy, but also to provide the best chance to redesign these digital media technologies so that we retain the promise and decrease the dangers.
To Section 230 or to not Secton 230, that is the question
After a lot of soul-searching, and sifting through arguments pro and con by leaders and organizations such as the libertarian Electronic Frontier Foundation (con) and long time Biden ally Bruce Reed (pro), I have concluded that President Joe Biden should make good on one of his campaign promises by asking Congress to revoke Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That's the law from 1996 that grants Big Tech media blanket immunity from the mass content it publishes. While revoking Section 230 is not a perfect solution, it would make the companies more responsible, deliberative and potentially liable for the worst of the toxic content, including illegal content, that is algorithmically-promoted by their platforms. Just like traditional media are already liable.
But let's be clear: some of the most reckless content would likely not be impacted by 230's revocation. For example, Donald Trump's posts on Twitter and Facebook claiming the presidential election was stolen, and his inflammatory speech that YouTube broadcast the morning of the Capitol attack to millions, were false and provocative -- but it would be difficult to legally prove that any individuals or institutions were harmed or incited directly by the president's many outrageous statements. After all, any number of traditional media outlets also have published untrue nonsense without the protections of Section 230, yet they were never held liable. Much content and speech -- even undesirable speech -- is already protected by the First Amendment.
But Facebook-Google-Twitter's "engagement algorithms" recommend and amplify sensationalized crazytown user content for one reason -- to maximize profits by increasing users' screen time and exposure to more ads. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook executives scaled back a successful effort to make the site less divisive when they found that it was decreasing their audience share. So this is more like commercial speech, which is entitled to less protection. All their fake pretensions aside about an "open and free internet," their primary business strategy has resulted in the dividing, distracting and outraging of people to the point where society is now plagued by a fractured basis for shared truth, sensemaking and political consensus.
And yet they still refuse to de-weaponize their platforms. Ejecting Donald Trump from their services did nothing to change their destructive business model, it just hid the most visible evidence of it. It was a self-serving act that should fool no one.
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