FaceBook, Disinformation And The First Amendment

These are tough times for Free Speech purists–of whom I am one.

I have always been persuaded by the arguments that support freedom of expression. In a genuine  marketplace of ideas, I believe–okay, I want to believe– that better ideas will drive out worse ones. More compelling is the argument that, while some ideas may be truly dangerous, giving   government the right to decide which ideas get expressed and which ones don’t would be much more dangerous. 

But FaceBook and other social media sites are really testing my allegiance to unfettered, unregulated–and amplified–expression. Recently, The Guardian reported that more than 3 million followers and members support the crazy QAnon conspiracy on Facebook, and their numbers are growing.

For those unfamiliar with QAnon, it

is a movement of people who interpret as a kind of gospel the online messages of an anonymous figure – “Q” – who claims knowledge of a secret cabal of powerful pedophiles and sex traffickers. Within the constructed reality of QAnon, Donald Trump is secretly waging a patriotic crusade against these “deep state” child abusers, and a “Great Awakening” that will reveal the truth is on the horizon.

Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher at the Harvard Shorenstein Center is quoted as saying that Facebook is a “unique platform for recruitment and amplification,” and that he doubts  QAnon would have been able to happen without the “affordances of Facebook.”

Facebook isn’t just providing a platform to QAnon groups–its  algorithms are actively recommending them to users who may not otherwise have been exposed to them. And it isn’t only QAnon. According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook’s own internal research in 2016 found that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools.”

If the problem was limited to QAnon and other conspiracy theories, it would be troubling enough, but it isn’t. A recent essay by a Silicone Valley insider named Roger McNamee in Time Magazine began with an ominous paragraph:

If the United States wants to protect democracy and public health, it must acknowledge that internet platforms are causing great harm and accept that executives like Mark Zuckerberg are not sincere in their promises to do better. The “solutions” Facebook and others have proposed will not work. They are meant to distract us.

McNamee points to a predictable cycle: platforms are pressured to “do something” about harassment, disinformation or conspiracy theories. They respond by promising to improve their content moderation. But– as the essay points out– none have been successful at limiting the harm from third party content, and  so the cycle repeats.  (As he notes, banning Alex Jones removed his conspiracy theories from the major sites, but did nothing to stop the flood of similar content from other people.)

The article identifies three reasons content moderation cannot work: scale, latency, and intent. Scale refers to the sheer hundreds of millions messages posted each day. Latency is the time it takes for even automated moderation to identify and remove a harmful message. The most important obstacle, however, is intent–a/k/a the platform’s business model.

The content we want internet platforms to remove is the content most likely to keep people engaged and online–and that makes it exceptionally valuable to the platforms.

As a result, the rules for AI and human moderators are designed to approve as much content as possible. Alone among the three issues with moderation, intent can only be addressed with regulation.

McNamee argues we should not have to accept disinformation as the price of access, and he offers a remedy:

At present, platforms have no liability for the harms caused by their business model. Their algorithms will continue to amplify harmful content until there is an economic incentive to do otherwise. The solution is for Congress to change incentives by implementing an exception to the safe harbor of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for algorithm amplification of harmful content and guaranteeing a right to litigate against platforms for this harm. This solution does not impinge on first amendment rights, as platforms are free to continue their existing business practices, except with liability for harms.

I’m not sure I share McNamee’s belief that his solution doesn’t implicate the First Amendment.

The (relative) newness of the Internet and social media creates uncertainty. What, exactly, are these platforms? How should they be classified? They aren’t traditional publishers–and third parties’ posts aren’t their “speech.” 

As 2020 campaigns heat up, more attention is being paid to how FaceBook promotes propaganda. Its refusal to remove or label clear lies from the Trump campaign has prompted advertisers to temporarily boycott the platform. FaceBook may react by tightening some moderation, but ultimately, McNamee is right: that won’t solve the problem.

One more conundrum of our Brave New World……

Happy 4th!


  1. As my little old Irish mother always told me when I questioned someone’s statement or action, “Consider the source.” That is a good rule to follow on Facebook; when the source is unfamiliar, research the issue.

    Americans in this current chaotic, tumultuous, totally screwed up and life-threatening condition of this country since 2017; we seem to look to The Guardian as a trusted source for OUR truths. They are having their own similar problems under Trump’s physical and political clone, Boris Johnson, but have the time to investigate and report on United States’ problems which are affecting and infecting conditions world wide. Does anyone doubt that the EU decision to ban American travelers from crossing their borders to be based on the results of our primary problem of Trump’s bastardization of our 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech which has led to mass shootings and now more than 2 MILLION and rising coronavirus victims?

    “These are tough times for Free Speech purists–of whom I am one.”

    I include myself in Sheila’s statement above and have to continue questioning; were the founding fathers remiss in NOT requiring truth when they included freedom of speech in their 1st Amendment as a protective measure?

  2. Thanks for the mention of McNamee…I recommend his book ‘Zucked’ for a deeper look. I closed my Facebook account about a month ago and you should too. There are plenty of other ways to see pics and videos of the kids and grandkids.

    So this:

    “I’m not sure I share McNamee’s belief that his solution doesn’t implicate the First Amendment”. And “The (relative) newness of the Internet and social media creates uncertainty. What, exactly, are these platforms? How should they be classified? They aren’t traditional publishers–and third parties’ posts aren’t their “speech.”

    Facebook’s practice of allowing hate-speech and conspiracy theories (the digital equivalent of yelling “fire” in a theater) MIGHT be defensible if it were only what it says it is – a platform where others post content (others “speech” not Facebook’s “speech”. But that’s not what it is. Rather, Facebook is a for-profit digital advertising business whose customers are those who pay to advertise on it. Facebook’s AI algorithms automate revenue-maximizing management policies to continuously look for the most efficient way to keep Facebook user eyeballs on Facebook feeds and clicks on ads. In this business model, you the Facebook user is not the customer, you are simply a source of fuel, an input of production.

    And the most efficient means that Facebook has found thus far to achieve their goals is to use the AI algorithms to HYPER-AMPLIFY stories, posts, pictures, videos, and paid advertisements that are “controversial” and trigger millions of users emotions. And the types of posts that are best at that are those that include hate-speech, conspiracy theories and outright lies. It’s even MORE efficient when for-hire Russian troll-farms post such content and amplify it using AI “bots” to trigger Facebook’s amplification algorithms. That’s it. The business model is not really that complicated, but the technology than enables it is hideously complicated.

    However, it is this HYPER-AMPLIFICATION where the problem lies and it has NOTHING to do with free speech. Nada. Zip. Zero. And if that business practice causes harm then Facebook (or any other digital platform) should not be shielded from damage claims in civil courts, even if it means Facebook’s stock price goes to zero and they have to shut down their massive server farms for good. But that would never happen because Facebook’s shareholders wouldn’t allow it to happen.

    As we speak nearly 700 businesses and non-profits are joining in boycott of Facebook for the stated reason that they do NOT want their products, services, messages and reputations to be co-located on millions of users feeds with the types of hyper-amplified content described above. In other words, they regard Facebook as damaged goods as far as advertising platforms go (our daughter works in the digital advertising industry and says that no company’s employees are more arrogant or harder to work with than Facebook’s). Zuck (again, arrogantly) claims the boycott will have little if any impact on their ad revenue and I’m not buyin’ that story either.

    But you make the same error that most of our Congressional representatives make by assuming it is much MORE than that because it’s “information technology” that “we can’t understand” and that “is changing too rapidly to regulate”. And that’s all just nonsense. Section 230 was designed to protect the nascent internet FROM companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon and Microsoft, not to protect THEM from accountability for their destructive business practices. And “relative newness”?? Relative to what? How much more industry consolidation and domination in social media has to occur before you think it is “mature”.

    “One more conundrum of our Brave New World……”.

    I hope that policy-makers, legislators and regulators wake up soon and realize this is FAR GREATER than just a conundrum because it really is an existential threat to any kind of democratic form of government, much less the flawed form of it that we practice in our country. Protecting the first amendment at all costs could easily result in losing the first amendment, all of the other amendments, and the underlying amended document as well. But the First Amendment is not the issue here. The issue is regulating predatory business practices in a capitalist economic system.

    And with that, Happy (but humble) 4th of July everyone!

  3. I agree basically with what you said. I would add that Facebook’s monopolistic power – as is similar to Amazon – is a key part of the problem. I would suggest Joseph Stiglitz’s incredible book: People, Power and Profits…

  4. Although it might be hard to prove that Facebook abetted a crime by posting some particular hateful message, it is worth trying, by making the platforms responsible for what they post. After all, they are not in the Information Business, they are in Business.

  5. I’ve been on Facebook for over a decade and have not seen any outright recruiting messages from the idiots at QAnon or anything else. I have over 2,000 followers for my very occasional messages on Vern’s Readers.

    I use FB as a platform to announce my books’ launches and have been rather successful from that.

    I understand that these social media platforms can be misused and the freedom of expression abused. Our intrepid news media is “Johnny on the spot” when sign-carrying idiots show their ignorance by saluting the Confederacy (There are a host of one-hit-wonder boy bands that lasted longer than the traitorous Confederacy), white power and all the rest. With the right to express one’s self comes the freedom to display yourself as a complete horse’s ass too. Our president is doing a really good job at the latter.

  6. A view suggests that this issue is related to the “higher” issue of all of our freedoms/liberty – that none are “free” – they all come with attached responsibility to all – as with wearing masks during the pandemic.

    The equation is simple – yes, you have the freedom to do “x”, but with it comes the “restriction” not to use it to hurt others/your country, as most often called by “yelling fire in a crowded theater”.

    The problem is that the third part of the equation, consequences for violating responsibility are either nonexistent, not enforced or enforced unequally.

    There is much research to show that it is not penalties that deter bad behavior, it is the likelihood of getting caught…such may be the core thing here.

  7. There is a piece circulating claiming to be the Chancellor of Oxford debunking black (small Letter ‘b’ first clue this was a sham) activists demanding removal of statue of namesake from campus. Anyone who have read literature published by Oxford Press would immediately surmise the poor quality of penmanship renders the piece not worth the paper to wrap a fish in. It came to me from folk I know well whom consistently subscribe to far right positions. I checked it out on Snopes, and sure enough, the statement did not come from anyone in authority at Oxford. Those who bullhorn mainstream media as fake news seem to waller in ecstasy in the self indulged warmth of fresh excrement called their own late breaking news.

  8. It is so easy to alarm and dup people on Facebook with half true postings that get shared with just one click. Every time I see something that is wrong or misleading, I spend a few minutes explaining to people, with credible sources, why they should not be sharing this. I explain how to cross check, and then how to tell if the source you are using is credible. Unfortunately it takes effort and thought and the whole platform is built around getting you to react.

    Luckily I don’t have too many radical friends, and the the few I did have seem to have unfriended me when I keep replying with logic and reason and hard to refute sources.

    PargerU videos are particularly bad. They seem so reasonable with a logical progression, but then they take horrible and twisted paths to some right wing ideology that is so far from the truth it is horrifying. Luckily these guys rely on YouTube and YouTube does seem to be making some changes.


    Unfortunately FaceBook still does not seem to be getting the message. I have posted on Facebook, Facebook is evil (ironic). Don’t use them as your source of news!

    Even then going to local TV station for news is just as bad. I consider them “Newsertainment”, with emotional stories thin on facts or research. Stories that makes you react and want to come back for more, almost the same model as Facebook.

  9. We are addicted to entertainment. What is this drug? To me the main attribute of it is that it is something that is pleasurable to the point of a motivation to want more and more. It’s like food and sex. Our bodies are wired to always want more and that’s why it, like drugs, is a great business. The product creates dependence.

    What’s problematic about it is that some people can’t see the distinction between entertainment and reality. It becomes their reality. It’s the reality that they wish for.

    Personally I don’t think distinguishing between real and make believe is that hard. In fact I’m very much a believer in: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. But then as a geek I’m sworn to evidence rather than words and images.

    The bottom line is that freedom of speech requires critical thinking. The Great Enlightenment required the preeminence of ration over pleasure. Have we lost that to a degree where we are no longer earn freedom of speech as a right?

    Trump only knows entertainment. As a one trick pony he ought not be democratically appealing. The theme woven into the recent history of these pages on Sheila’s blog is how come people fall for him?

    November will reveal if the US is enlightened enough to still earn our freedom.

  10. We need to reinstate “fairness in broadcasting” and expand the field into digital. There’s too much freedom from facts/truth these days. As a culture we’ll never progress toward freedom & equality if we’re mired in a swamp of mis-information. Am I willing to be part of a public platform that’s sells my time/attention to businesses/organizations that intentionally mis-inform to cause disparity & promote their extreme positions?

  11. Freedom of speech is overrated, at least unqualified freedom of speech is overrated.

    The more we vent, the less need we feel to act; therefore, freedom of speech impedes citizen action.

    Freedom of speech can be modified (abridged) without removing free speech itself. I purport that partially restricting the unfettered right to AMPLIFY would not abridge speech at all; rather it would level the speaking field, so to speak, so that my speech would have the same reach as a wealthy speaker, who can afford all sorts of amplification enhancers. At least the rich guy’s speech and my speech would be relegated then to competing at content level rather than dispersal/amplification level.

    I think it a mistake to have interpreted the speech Amendment as affecting its delivery system. It is the content of speech that the First Amendment addresses, not the decimal level nor the casting distance and density. I contend that those three ancillary qualities of speech can be curtailed legally, Constitutionally, without curtailing what we say.

  12. Larry, the question in my mind is how effectively can kids be educated in critical thinking? There’s a lot of traditional education now that’s of marginal value due to phones and networks but those same tools raise the stakes on critical thinking skills.

  13. I second what Patrick said. Last year, I too deleted my Facebook account because of their unethical practices of profits uber alles.

  14. Pete,

    Read – “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” – Postman and Weingartner…

  15. Old man’s post today –

    I remember back in the ‘90s, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), now called Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), was planning on expansion and called together people in Chicago (where I was residing) and other cities to try to organized fund-raising events, with the “promise” of Steve Allen being one of the guests.

    Their worries then were people believing in UFOs, horoscopes and quack medicine. I remember James “The Amazing” Randi exposing “psychic surgery” and Peter Popoff on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

    Belief in unsubstantiated nonsense has taken a great leap in the wrong direction since then.

    I also remember The Internet before Facebook and before it was commercial. You basically were associated with the government or a university to participate. When you received access, you were directed to pages on proper behavior, or “netiquette”. Your access was a privilege, although most institutions let you be as long as you didn’t abuse that privilege. This changed when The Internet was opened up and the “Ugly Americans” from AOL jumped in saying, “I paid for this, I don’t have to follow rules.”

    In the “old days” (I won’t say good or bad), our “opinions” could be expressed on Usenet, which had thousands of groups that were topic-specific. There were two sides to Usenet. Usenet proper took a vote among all “netizens” before a group could be formed. This tended to keep peace in these groups. Then there was the “wild west” version of total free speech that were the “alt” groups. Anyone could form one and anyone could post. That is where I first encountered trolls, who on several occasions destroyed the groups I wanted to follow, by starting flame wars and generally uploading dozens of insulting posts.

    If Facebook had real criteria for groups, or disallowed advertising for new members, or simply didn’t suggest new groups, it might work better. However, I do see a problem, but not a First Amendment one. I wouldn’t want to stop Vernon’s fans from learning of his book releases (stop him from accumulating new fans), nor stop people from finding my elementary school’s alumni page. We are a very loyal group who attended what may have been the only integrated school among Detroit’s public school. We tend to move in different, but still feel a close affinity. This is a Facebook plus, as is staying in contact with family (I reach my cousins in Canada and Sweden this way).

    All in all, I think Patrick’s analysis says what I want – and better that I would have.

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