A Way Forward??

A recent column from the Boston Globe began with a paragraph that captures a discussion we’ve had numerous times on this blog.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” These days, though, two out of three Americans get their news from social media sites like Facebook, its subsidiary Instagram, Google’s YouTube, and Twitter. And these sites supply each of us with our own facts, showing conservatives mostly news liked by other conservatives, feeding liberals mostly liberal content.

The author, Josh Bernoff, explained why reimposing the Fairness Doctrine isn’t an option; that doctrine was a quid pro quo of sorts. It required certain behaviors in return for permission to use broadcast frequencies controlled by the government. It never applied to communications that didn’t use those frequencies–and there is no leverage that would allow government to require a broader application.

That said, policymakers are not entirely at the mercy of the social networking giants who have become the most significant purveyors of news and information–as well as propaganda and misinformation.

As the column points out, social media sites are making efforts–the author calls them “baby steps”–to control the worst content, like hate speech. But they’ve made only token efforts to alter the algorithms that generate clicks and profits by feeding users materials that increase involvement with the site. Unfortunately, those algorithms also intensify American tribalism.

These algorithms keep users on the site longer by sustaining their preferred worldviews, irrespective of the factual basis of those preferences–and thus far, social media sites have not  been held accountable for the damage that causes.

Their shield is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 is

a key part of US media regulation that enables social networks to operate profitably. It creates a liability shield so that sites like Facebook that host user-generated content can’t be held responsible for defamatory posts on their sites and apps. Without it, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and similar sites would get sued every time some random poster said that Mike Pence was having an affair or their neighbor’s Christmas lights were part of a satanic ritual.

Removing the shield entirely isn’t the answer. Full repeal would drastically curb free expression–not just on social media, but in other places, like the comment sections of newspapers. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take a leaf from the Fairness Doctrine book, and make Section 230 a quid pro quo–something that could be done without eroding the protections of the First Amendment.

Historically, Supreme Court opinions regarding First Amendment protections for problematic speech have taken the position that the correct remedy is not shutting it down but stimulating “counterspeech.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a 1919 opinion, “The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” And in 1927, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”….

Last year, Facebook generated $70 billion in advertising revenue; YouTube, around $15 billion; and Twitter, $3 billion. Now the FCC should require them to set aside 10 percent of their total ad space to expose people to diverse sources of content. They would be required to show free ads for mainstream liberal news sources to conservatives, and ads for mainstream conservative news sites to liberals. (They already know who’s liberal and who’s conservative — how do you think they bias the news feed in the first place?) The result would be sort of a tax, paid in advertising, to compensate for the billions these companies make under the government’s generous Section 230 liability shield and counteract the toxicity of their algorithms.

Sounds good to me. 


  1. Copied and pasted below is a portion of Huffpost article, “2020 brought a Pandemic and an Infodemic…”

    “The results have been devastating: Frontline health care workers are being harassed online and in-person by coronavirus truthers accusing them of faking the crisis. People are drinking bleach, wrongly believing it will treat or prevent the disease — which the president himself suggested. As the U.S. death toll soars past 340,000, hordes of protesters are demanding an end to the shutdowns (with support from Trump).And as baseless and often ludicrous anti-vaccine conspiracy theories continue to proliferate online,tens of millions of Americans will likely refuse to be immunized against COVID-19, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

    This year revealed just how powerful — and harmful — disinformation can be.”

    The five most dangerous listed were: 1. The Coronavirus isn’t real, 2. The ‘Plandemic” was orchestrated by powerful elites. 3. Doctors and scientists are withholding the cure. 4. 5G wireless technology causes Covid-19. 5. Bill Gates wants to vaccinate, microchip and track you.

    When our elected officials at the highest levels, once considered the most powerful on earth, are not required to speak the truth or uphold their Oath of Office; we can hardly expect the truth from any social media site. They are protected by federal law and the 1st Amendment freedom of speech and freedom of the press while the American public goes unprotected from their dangerous actions. Our only protection appears to be our freedom of speech to “write to our Congressmen” or protest on social media; we are no longer protected by our right to vote them out of office in many areas of this country. Consider the nightmare we face from Republicans on January 6th when Hawley and other Republicans protest the outcome of the Electoral College vote which put Trump in the White House. How long will their deliberate and futile debate delay the end of this Trump nightmare by distorting the facts to fit their need to showboat their power?

  2. JoAnn, your next to last sentence has Hawley protesting Trump’s win in the electoral college, not Biden’s.

  3. Pascal; you are correct, I should have worded that differently to clarify my comment. Would “which is how Trump was appointed to the presidency” clarify the comment?

  4. As I speak with people they reaffirm my belief that closely held beliefs are impervious to facts, even if they come from a “trusted source.”

  5. if im to be primed for the algorithems,i need to know,whos priming them for us? if the section and cause to make,a algorithem is by human thinking,(im sure you have words for this,bare with me) this set up,is devised again by humans looking to control,some process. if some day,we have courts to decide,via some algorithem,the sentance of costs of a fine etc,, someone had to set up the inital version of this menace. are we too lazy to think above the water line? that some computer generated nerve has to define our thinking and,actions? if social media has pigeon holed ones thinking,then it has won. ever pick up a newspaper someone left behind on a bus etc? maybe the newspaper that wrapped someones home move. since i was a kid i did that, and didnt need someone telling me,or something now, what to read. did it go conservitive,or liberal? im not taking stock of that. id read u.s. new and world report,time,life,look, popular science,and i found more in the pile in the basement of our apt house,where many piled the news to the ceiling for disposal. grand dad bought home,either the ny daily news or the newark evening news, sunday it was the nyt, sunday webster size monster.the comics were never better,as was the bold type. Cronkite was the nations word of mouth,along with chet and david,and those who were rising starts reporting from nam. the damning was when those numbers for those killed in action, became the national shame,when it was discovered, that the number never mentioned died from action later on. we caught on, we disrupted the war. now seems that theres money to be made in the newsroom,any news room. ive had my afternoon laugh listening to rush, when he dared to take calls from someone. then the ground got plowed and we became liberals and conservitives. somewhere, the corprate ideal was seeding the news with think tank paid news stories, then it wasnt required to be said,as a ad. even now,its deemed news. counter news,propaganda,all ears cramed down on the web site. hard to find a news paper in Bis/Man NoDak. seems the cafe,er, whatever you call em, has fox on as some sort of honor over content. i watch the ads, i decide where i spend my money. being i dont have social media connections beyond this site, allow me to wither in dispare that i cant find the trove of news that once was,between paper and ink. i dont promote anything that smells like a law or words that take from the working class, or people marginalized by the economic influence that writes the news,that most come to enjoy. i know the diffrence,and i read what the others say,and recognise the affrect,and who its effecting. when we still see people who are living in poverty and next to poverty,like most of the working class, i can pick who and what says we have to accept this, and who says we dont. its all money picking the news your required to read, not what you need to read..best wishes on this news year, i hope we can all pick a path to a better relization above some algorithem induced coma..

  6. “It must be remembered that for most people reason and reality are nothing but public consensus”.

    –Erich Fromm

    I’m heartened to see this topic addressed more frequently, here and elsewhere. It’s a crisis and it is not going away soon nor on its own. I’ve commented at length on it in the past so won’t bore you with my angle here. But I did just read a very good article titled “Making Sense of the Facebook Menace” in The New Republic by Siva Vaidhyanathan, a cultural historian and professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, and I highly recommend it.

    Some of his thoughts on going forward are similar to those cited above but he strikes a very stark tone as his starting point when he says that Facebook’s problem is not found at the edges (false, conspiratorial and emotive content). Facebook itself IS the problem and in a democracy it probably shouldn’t be allowed to exist in its current form. Facebook operates on FEELINGS and not FACTS and it is absurd to expect an affective system to operate like a fact-checking machine. It simply isn’t in its DNA.

    His prescriptions are intentionally vague but generally depend on the government of a democratic republics to recognize that Facebook (and Twitter and Youtube) are inherently anti-democratic platforms and must be countered in ways that neutralize if not reverse their externalities. Keep in mind that only 220 million out of Facebook’s 2.7 BILLION accountholders live in the USA. Taxes on social media advertising and data collection in general were cited as ways to rejuvenate advertising on other, more fact-based, platforms, such as local newspapers! Also to fund social media ventures to compete with Facebook for clicks and mindshare. But he lost me on this one – the expression about taking a horse to water came to mind.

    In that vein he mentioned an initiative currently in development called CivicSignals.org, “an experiment in designing a platform that can foster respectful dialogue instead of commercially driven noise”. A PBS or NPR version of Facebook? Who knows? Anyway I was intrigued enough to sign up for their e-mail updates.

    Enjoy and here’s the link to the article:


  7. I find it distressing that some people want to Censor Face Book or other social media outlets. Who will be the Censor or Censors??? It is beyond reason to expect some one to read every post to determine if it meets some criteria.

    The Trumpet had Fox News as his public propaganda forum. Fox knew The Trumpet had a following and no matter outrageous his lies were they were aired, with nary a discouraging word. Good for Corporate Profits to have a big audience.

    Since Fox News has fallen out of favor with The Trumpet, other new outlets exist to gather up The Trump Cult.

    The Trumpet is clearly in control of the GOP. The Trumpet and McConnell have a symbiotic relationship Trump has the charisma to deliver Trump Cult and McConnell has the power.

  8. Sigh…the root cause lies in education…civic education and critical thinking. (1,000 times in 2020)

  9. I think this idea is fascinating and has great potential. It’s not debating facts. It’s advertising —using emotions! I, for one, would love to take up the challenge of creating counter-ad content to run within the stream created by the right-weighted algorithm. It would be an opportunity to place parasitic viruses inside host minds! It would have to operate at a deep level of trying to touch shared values, which are powerful starting points. Fascinating!!

  10. It seems that what social media does is to amplify entertainment media. Like viruses, ideas need a certain critical mass to become pandemics. While that aggregation of critical mass for the coronavirus began in Wuhan, China international travel gave it rides around the world and it quickly went from unnoticed to killing humans at alarming rates.

    Ideas also take over public expression of political commentary like that. Someone launches one with legs and pretty soon it is repeated enough to act like the truth though it is not based on fact, but attractive fantasy.

    We once controlled that with the Fairness Doctrine.


    Perhaps a good start would be to dust it off and give it another go at the problem.

  11. Left Facebook about 9 months ago — could no longer tolerate the stupidity of many statements regarding the upcoming elections. Best thing I ever did. I didn’t cancel my account, just stopped following and posting. I can still wish friends “Happy Birthday” and see pics of the grandkids when posted (I asked my daughter to tag me). One added benefit — I don’t have to see pics of other people’s food!

  12. Pete, the Fairness Doctrine just applied to broadcast media and it was enforced via the licensing process. FoxNews, CNN, MSNBC, Facebook, Twitter, aren’t broadcast media and it never applied to them.

    I hardly think CBS, NBC and ABC are the problem.

  13. Lester’s “root cause” observation is right on, trouble is, we may not have time even under optimal conditions to educate/reeducate the gentry with critical thinking skills before Trumpists and their ilk destroy or seriously injure our democracy. I also think Sheila’s citation of Holmes and Brandeis, while accurate, might be different in this day and age if those two brilliant jurists of their time were exposed to the means of instant communication we have these days compared with the newspapers, radio and pamphleteering of their day(s). Silicon Valley has its costs.

    230 has it good and bad features, as do all attempts to regulate or deregulate speech. Trump’s attempt to rid us of 230 altogether is merely another of his ways to sow chaos, of course. He cares not for outcomes other than those he perceives as helpful to his dictatorial ambitions. Rule or ruin. . . (Not, I wager, what Madison, Hamilton and Jefferson had in mind.)

  14. Broadcast,digital,satellite & print media when producing blatent lies, or skillfully twisted lies, is harmful to the public’s well being. Newsprint can be held liable for any malicious untrue statement(libel). The impact that dis-information has on people is amplified coming across from mass media, and is a serious problem.
    Courtrooms, classrooms majority of businesses strive to deal with facts in order to make sound decisions for all concerned. It was dis-heartening to see last year the US Senate vote to not allow evidence(facts) during the impeachment trial of DJT. It’s like a war on truth from the highest offices of Government.
    Americans deserve better. Freedom of speech has some responsiblities to it. Purposely deceiving, misguiding gas lighting, for political/monetary gain needs to be called out & fined. We all agreed that cigarettes needed to be labeled as hazardous to health; some programs need to labeled (for entertainment only).

  15. Social media are, as we have learned to our sorrow, the ultimate enablers of demagoguery and populism. This insight is reinforced by the knowledge that more people rely on gut feelings, hearsay and instincts than on analysis of facts or unbiased news sources (soap operas involving actors communicating fake emotions were always more popular than Carl Sagan’s Cosmos) or even by consideration of what policies best support people’s personal interests. Given this reality, the politician most willing to deceive voters using misinformation (and thereby acquire power and wealth) has access to a more powerful and more affordable set of tools than those who work for good government.

    But civilization has always faced this “Barbarians at the Gate” problem (ask any Chinese about why they built a wall), and has yet to find a solution. When civilized people lose the argument, there are wars and dark ages. When they win, mankind takes a few steps forward. The Manichean view of the world is not entirely wrong, and we are forced to deal with that verity of our species. Meanness and irrationality are no more likely to disappear than poverty and ignorance. “Universal” education has done relatively little to address the problem. If we remain vigilant and determined to outwork those unfit to govern, we can anticipate winning most of the time. Maybe that’s a reasonable goal.

  16. Social media can also be simply “social” media; a way to find family and friends we have lost touch with or make new on-line friends with like interests. We can “hide”, block or delete the political, offensive, uninteresting posts and research those we are curious about. We can also laugh at jokes shared on social media and sometimes learn interesting facts and/or news items we missed.

    We are supposedly thinking adults who can accept or reject information put before us on all forms of media just as we can in face-to-face conversations.

  17. Jo Ann,

    I wonder about your supposition concerning “thinking adults.” In the last election, 73 million Americans supported a buffoon who openly spoke of overthrowing our democratic government without offering any alternative except for exaltation of himself. Everybody has the power and ability to think, but for reasons none of us understand, many don’t choose that option when it comes to ideologies and associates.

  18. “Thinking” must be “critical thinking”…neither parents nor schools doing that… (beatin’ that drum)

  19. Egads!
    I’ve been sorry to learn, and learn again, that the Fairness Doctrine might be toothless, assuming that that is a real fact.
    I’ve never been on FB, originally for professional related personal reasons, and am glad for that.

    It appears to me that the monster has been let out, like a disease/virus, and will never quite be put back into its cage. Nonetheless, there must be efforts to control it.
    The Eric Fromm quote is a reality check with which I’m not happy, but that does not change it’s veracity. Fromm is the source of the unofficial diagnosis of Malignant Narcissism, created to encapsulate the evil of Hitler, which fits Trump so well, BTW.

  20. I have to agree with the civil libertarian view that we want a lighter touch to protect basic free speech, but it all leads back to “alternate facts”.

    I remember when Saturday Night Live responded to criticism of being “too liberal” (note – satire is inherently liberal – it pokes fun at the established order) – one “balancing” skit had a news show pronouncing Hispanic names and words correctly, with exaggerated emphasis on those words – funny, it wasn’t, but racist polemic – yes – what is “liberal” pronouncing “Juan” and not saying “Jew-Ann” or knowing how to pronounce “junta”.

    As I mentioned before, in an article for skeptics arguing with “flat-earthers” and their ilk – any “counter-content” will be ignored and unless some great propagandists do the “liberal counter-content” it will fall on deaf ears. Of course, I could make a fortune selling out and doing the “conservative counter-content” – “Hi, I am Len and I work in IT. Trump won and the election was stolen. I work in IT, so I must know. Thank you.”

    One evil we don’t talk about – the belief, started within my lifetime (can’t remember when) that patents should be sold like “indulgences” were before the Reformation, as a government revenue source. Anything and everything should be sold as patents or copyrights. Proprietary algorithms allow social media sites to tilt opinions, allow credit bureaus to control our financial lives, and potentially allow voting machine companies do what Trump accuses them of doing – fortunately, most jurisdictions use paper trails for voting.

    I wish I had a good idea for solving this issue, but …
    Happy 2021 – no matter what, it has to be better, at least a little bit – now if only the “mainstream media” will relegate Trump to NewsMax and their ilk.

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