Falsely Shouting “Fire” In The Digital Theater

Tom Wheeler is one of the savviest observers of the digital world.

Now at the Brookings Institution, Wheeler headed up the FCC during the Obama administration, and recently authored an essay titled “The Consequences of Social Media’s Giant Experiment.” That essay–like many of his other publications–considered the impact of legally-private enterprises that have had a huge public impact.

The “experiment” Wheeler considers is the shutdown of Trump’s disinformation megaphones: most consequential, of course, were the Facebook and Twitter bans of Donald Trump’s accounts, but it was also important that  Parler–a site for rightwing radicalization and conspiracy theories–was effectively shut down for a time by Amazon’s decision to cease hosting it, and decisions by both Android and Apple to remove it from their app stores. (I note that, since Wheeler’s essay, Parler has found a new hosting service–and it is Russian owned.)

These actions are better late than never. But the proverbial horse has left the barn. These editorial and business judgements do, however, demonstrate how companies have ample ability to act conscientiously to protect the responsible use of their platforms.

Wheeler addresses the conundrum that has been created by a subsection of the law that  insulates social media companies from responsibility for making the sorts of  editorial judgements that publishers of traditional media make every day. As he says, these 26 words are the heart of the issue: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

As he points out,

If you are insulated from the consequences of your actions and make a great deal of money by exploiting that insulation, then what is the incentive to act responsibly?…

The social media companies have put us in the middle of a huge and explosive lab experiment where we see the toxic combination of digital technology, unmoderated content, lies and hate. We now have the answer to what happens when these features and large profits are blended together in a connected world. The result not only has been unproductive for civil discourse, it also represents a danger to democratic systems and effective problem-solving.

Wheeler repeats what most observers of our digital world have recognized: these platforms have the technological capacity to exercise the same sort of responsible moderation that  we expect of traditional media. What they lack is the will–because more responsible moderating algorithms would eat into their currently large–okay, obscene– profits.

The companies’ business model is built around holding a user’s attention so that they may display more paying messages. Delivering what the user wants to see, the more outrageous the better, holds that attention and rings the cash register.

Wheeler points out that we have mischaracterized these platforms–they are not, as they insist, tech enterprises. They are media, and should be required to conform to the rules and expectations that govern media sources. He has other suggestions for tweaking the rules that govern these platforms, and they are worth consideration.

That said, the rise of these digital giants creates a bigger question and implicates what is essentially a philosophical dilemma.

The U.S. Constitution was intended to limit the exercise of power; it was crafted at a time in human history when governments held a clear monopoly on that power. That is arguably no longer the case–and it isn’t simply social media giants. Today, multiple social and economic institutions have the power to pose credible threats both to individual liberty and to social cohesion. How we navigate the minefield created by that reality–how we restrain the power of theoretically “private” enterprises– will determine the life prospects of our children and grandchildren.

At the very least, we need rules that will limit the ability of miscreants to falsely shout fire in our digital environments.


  1. The abuse of the First Amendment’s right to free speech is a crime unto itself, and should be treated as such. We now have the most dramatic precedent for long-term hate speech, disinformation speech and outright rabble rousing.

    We almost lost the Constitution that guarantees the right to free speech. Shouldn’t that be enough warning to the 75% of the rational people that the 25% who place profits before truth, money before the rule of law and hate before community must be controlled and prevented from killing our democracy?

  2. I find their actions to be more for self-preservation than protection of the public. Even the outside possibility of being charged with aiding and abetting Trump, et al, seditious, treasonous call-to-arms and the deadly insurrection on January 6th by spreading-the-word can be charged as violating the 1st Amendment freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

    More to be feared are those still inside our government who continue to support Trump’s Tweets and those social media outlets; starting with those in the Senate who refuse to turn over the majority lead to rightfully elected Democratic Senators and those in the House being investigated as having an active part in the January 6th insurrection and the attempt to murder their own Vice President. Trump’s words and physical being and some of those social outlets may be gone but his control over this government remains strong enough to slow down and stop progress by the Biden administration. Shumer has said it will take truth to convict Trump in the impeachment to prevent his return and the Republican control is shouting “Foul!” to hold up the Constitutional Legislative process of all Senate business.

  3. What exactly did Tom Wheeler do for eight years while heading up Obama’s FCC to restrain the profits of the Tech industry?

    Last I checked, Comcast pretty much ruled Obama and Wheeler during his eight years. How did Wheeler check the monopoly powers of our cellular, broadband, and cable providers?

    I have to laugh when these ex-officials who did nothing while in the office suddenly tell others what should be done and are heralded as experts.

    This comment he made – “If you are insulated from the consequences of your actions and make a great deal of money by exploiting that insulation, then what is the incentive to act responsibly?”

    I agree 100%!!!!

    Now, how many corporations/industries/individuals does that define in Indiana, the USA, and globally?

    The Intercept had a great article about all the millionaires/billionaires who funded the “Patriots” who stormed the capitol. My favorite is Donors Trust, which is nothing more than a Koch ATM for all these right-wing organizations.

    What’s even better is the Internal Revenue Service allows the donors to launder their money through this “trust” anonymously.

    Why aren’t all the donors who funded the resurrection being held accountable?

    The answers are all the same.

    Our government serves the Oligarchy; not the people.

    So, we can rely on the Fourth Branch of Government (free press) to serve the people and hold the government accountable and those donors influencing the government, right?

  4. How in blazes did we get to this point where society believes that social media is the be all and end all of free speech? Really?
    Let’s see. Correct me if you will and I am sure many will.
    I start up a new company where you can bring your bit of printed anything, and I will print up millions of copies of it for free and distribute it to millions of people at no charge to you. You can bring ANYTHING! I’ll print and distribute ANYTHING! No charge to you. But you have to let me tag on a few ads. And I get to spy on the people who read your ideas/shit and sell that information to other companies. What they do with that information I don’t care. It’s free enterprise. Get it? FREE enterprise. And here is the best part. No one is responsible for anything in this business. Not you, not the advertisers, not me. Mostly me.
    Ethics? Morality? Truth? Not you. Not the advertisers. AND NOT ME!
    Laws you say? Regulations? Hell no, this is free speech!

  5. Theresa,

    I think you just described how Parler works. That fetid platform was created by two University of Denver graduates. UD is a haven for rich, white kids in Colorado. They will, obviously, do anything to make money while not giving a single whit for doing something good.

    Your comment today, makes the point of mine above.

  6. How much does a billionaire need to be happy? The answer is always the same: More!

    We need to craft new rules, but we need to do it carefully. Maybe the smartest thing we could do is tax income over $1billion at 95%.

  7. If we are going to hold social media to a higher standard, perhaps we should do so with Fox News.

  8. This is fascinating!

    So, where would someone like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, or Edward Snowden slot into this?

    Manning needed attention, and also needed money for altering his gender!

    Snowden, well, what can you say, he is joined with Julian Assange at the hip. And, really, was the start of the whole Q anon movement taken right from the FBI’s and NSA’s Q group which oversees internal security and leaks.

    Julian Assange decided to make a career out of leaking governmental secrets and methods at the behest of enemies foreign and some domestic. Was he a freedom fighter? Actually, he was/is a sexual predator which is not in question. Because of his asylum, he was able to run out the clock on statute of limitations concerning his dalliances. So, his refuge request granted by the Ecuadorian Embassy allowed him continue his spying and interference, along with running out statute of limitations clock!

    He accepted really expensive technological equipment, also, equipment that would allow him not to be spied on. He received visits from arcane operatives that wished to use his platform to infuse anarchy in political and operational sectors of American government. His platform was used by or at the behest of the former POTUS and or his operatives. In February 2020, that POTUS dangled a presidential pardon to Julian Assange if he disavowed the Russians, which he refused. After all, the treasure trove that he received prior to the election of Trump in 2016, came from Russian hackers. (Thousands of Clinton team emails campaign related and not) And all of his equipment was financed by the Russian government.

    Ecuador in 2017 gave Wikileaks founder Julian Assange a diplomatic post in Russia. But the offer was rescinded after Britain refused to give him diplomatic immunity, according to an Ecuadorean government document seen by Reuters.The aborted effort suggests Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno had engaged Moscow to resolve the situation of Assange’s presence in Ecuador’s embassy in London.

    Of course the British did not recognize his immunity if he left the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, so the Ecuadorian plan was scrapped! A year later he was arrested after his immunity was lifted by Ecuador.

    For all of these individuals just working for the press? Or, were they working for, and at the behest of, a foreign government! Russia is heavily connected with all of these individuals, just as, the white nationalist website Parlor has been picked up by a Russian entity so they can continue sowing discord.

    I mean, don’t we have courts for a reason? We arrest and prosecute individuals who steal information from private citizens, also from corporations as in corporate espionage, but those who steal information from governments are somehow immune to prosecutions?

    So, is it okay to promote conspiracies on digital forums to incite violence and subversive activity? Are these forums really the free press? Are the actors involved in theft of state secrets and methods, freedom fighters?

    You can’t compare what some of these entities and individuals have done to the civil rights movement, because, these are individuals who have used these platforms for personal gain and profit, and, not equalizing society for everyone! Those involved in the civil rights movement didn’t hide in the shadows or request asylum from enemies of the state, they put it out there at great personal risk for everyone to see, and fought it in the courts!

    Unfortunately certain cable news networks have taken their Que from social media, lies and innuendo reported as truth, and no responsibility ever taken for the consequences.

  9. First step: no one should be able to post anything without the ability to identify and locate that person. We now have great power to influence and organize but absent a concomitant means of regulation for abuse. Excellent topic.

  10. Theresa right on point!

    My wife made an interesting observation this morning. Trump was finally banned from social media after he incited insurrection at the Capital, but he also been defanged by loosing the election. I know that sedition was the final straw, but would the social media ban have happened if there still a threat of retribution?

    Before the downfall, Trump and right-wingers were making noise about modifying “section 230”, the law that created this shield, but I am not sure why. It would have killed the right wing propaganda machine. Can anybody tell me why? Was this a Trump’s way to punish the social media people that had been “picking” on him?

  11. Wheeler argues that the tech platforms “should be required to conform to the rules and expectations that govern media sources.” What are those “rules and expectations”? The main restraint is “self-regulation” or acting responsibility. That restraint is in short supply these days. Other than rules that regulate all business activity, the primary legal restraint on most media is the libel and slander laws. Those laws require media to try to prevent libel and slander. When they fail, they can be held to account by lawsuits. Accused sexual predators say: “The alleged victim is a liar.” If a newspaper or tv station reports that statement the report is the truth, i.e. the Accused Sexual Predator said that. Who does the victim sue then? How can a victim sue someone in Russia, if the defamation starts there? Restraints will be hard to enforce. A Facebook, a Twitter or a Parlar can force a victim to take years and spend bags of money. Such delay will never help get the truth out in a timely fashion. If the tech giants start self regulating content as Mainstream Media now do, those giants will have to restrict i.e. “censor” content to a much greater extent than they do now. Expecting large profitable companies to act with responsibility and reason remains the great challenge. Can we meet that challenge?

  12. First Amendment rights plus 230 plus “crowded theater” limitations plus corporate greed plus political contributions constitute a toxic brew which raises many interesting questions. Each when considered in isolation will have its proponents claiming the high ground in the debate. There is another silent interest involved in this debate which stands to prosper greatly in the absence of 230 – the defamation industry which, along with a reversal of Clark v. NYT and removal of 230, may be the best means of inhibiting reckless speech which now enjoys no consequences.

  13. With each freedom comes responsiblity. So to keep my free speech responsible I use THINK. Is it thoughtful, honest, intellegent, necessary, kind? Of course, the truth is not always kind but we can speak truth with civility.

    It really is unfortunate that people don’t reign their speech in with THINK on Facebook but instead use it as a plateform to engage in hate speech and spreading falsehood. Some of the groups I have from Facebook have rules about what people can post. Maybe Facebook should follow those rules.

    The main propagater of “fake news” was Trump. And then of course there are all the right wing media outlets spewing propaganda that are rife with falsehoods.

    Walter Kronkite would be appalled.

  14. I learned some useful perspective in the seemingly unrelated field of molecular biology lately. That came from research underway studying both pathogens like viruses and the animals that they infect immune systems from the standpoint of evolutionary strategies towards the survival of their species. It’s a natural biomolecular arms race with each side trying to exploit opportunities and mitigate threats to survival.

    The essay Sheila referenced is exactly the same kind of a struggle but between making ever more money using technology and protecting the rights of the customers of government here. It’s our move now that the balance of power has been demonstrably shifted way too far to the right. We have learned that the status quo is dysfunctional for we the people.

    As Sheila often reminds us, the only relevant question is what can we do?

  15. I always hated the First Amendment doesn’t give you the right to “yell fire in a crowded theatre” argument. Actually, you don’t have a right to yell anything in a theatre because they are privately owned (not aware of government owning any theatres) and the the First Amendment doesn’t apply. The content of what you’re yelling doesn’t matter.

    But I digress.

    I now am totally in favor of repealing Section 230 to make Twitter, Facebook liable for the content they publish if it strays into the area of libel. Trump and his allies were pushing for that, while at the same time demanding that these private platforms continue publishing their lies. That’s a contradictory position.

    Off the subject a bit, but not too much, I ventured onto Facebook this morning to post the blog article I wrote on Friday (I forgot until now to do it), when I encountered comments about Mike Pence. A supporter of Pence’s put up a positive comment, which was quickly met by several derogatory posts by people who claimed Pence had betrayed them by not tossing out electoral vote slates of swing states which were unfavorable to Mr. Trump. That so many of these people, who no doubt claim to be “conservative,” thinks the Vice President of the United States has the unilateral authority to accept or reject electoral votes, an utterly idiotic position not supported by the Constitution or its history, shows the corrosive effect of unchecked misinformation on these platforms.

  16. i like being outside the fence. no social media,no inside influence. somehow as i see it, theres a human nature for all, and blending in a new form of expression,is taking the human mind, outside of its norm, and of course,not in a thousands of years of development, has it been able to print all it wants with free ink. we were suppose to accept this,now, and for,the economy and its rulers,now! abuse is a taught language,its here in social media. people have the #s and the sites,and the media that has done a bang up job of promoting a economic train,based on what people say,and do. if the think tanks screen the behaviors of the sites content,back to the people its sharing with, then its obvious, thier going to use,sell,of exploit it. when privacy was a,at least what we remember,we kept someone thinking. now its based on market demands,get it all, and we can target,we can make it easier,we can make more profit. (screw anti trust)all the while diminishing ones self. if im not getting any junk mail,then it must be at least, keeping the greed dogs thinking..with the cell phone,energy whatevers,delivery of anything,one can guess, in the long run,it benifits the employer you work for,at less cost, to his bottom line. what does his e mail to whoever,mention how its saving his company money, or, finding another way to not,give anyone a living wage. if the social media masters were not private,where would they be drawing a line? if the private sector has this all rolled up, how is its profit, made? maybe a tax on the cleanup of the superfund mess like mindset weve been handed,with little of no regard for what we have lived and died for. theres a belief that people think this exchange of ideas is great,except its infamitory side lines,that makes contempt a daily ritual,where its being noted.most are for profit,tax them all to death… its time the profits generated on social media,help the drive for the violence and cheap rehetoric they have purveyed,and exploited.. we need a GDRP euro like
    law, that gives everyone the right to choose if they want to be tracked,hacked or followed around by the social media goons. page one, my privacy is mine,do not follow,sell, or exploit,check..

  17. Richard Thomas,

    “First step: no one should be able to post anything without the ability to identify and locate that person.”

    At the time they were published, did we know who wrote The Federalist Papers?

  18. If the Federalist Papers had been anarchistic, and incited violence, should they have been censored, and banned from publication?

  19. Free Speech is not necessarily desirable or useful to a democracy. Whoa! In fact, in one important sense, free speech is always harmful because of its tendency to stall, to delay, to totally forgo action. Free speech releases steam and causes vital corrective energy to be lost from the civic engine.

    Talk about failure to learn from history; dictators take all the awards: the more they deny speech the more they make action — revolt — imminent, and yet the next dictator will invariably deny free speech and thus bring about his own downfall.

    If America aspires to be sufficiently proactive in its self-government to ever actually self-govern, it must first suffer the virtues of muzzled free speech to the minimal degree that causes free speech’s absence to at least bring on action.

    Free speech is not a binary choice, and the ordinary citizen’s failure to understand free speech is a product of the Free Speech myth — sometimes taught in school but more often picked up in garages and beauty shops and bars and clubs and Supreme Courts– the myth that denies the full array of free speech options and locks hard on Either you have free speech or you don’t.

  20. Honestly, these discussions over “Free Speech” and holding the Tech companies responsible for someone’s rants or raves is getting tiresome.

    We do not hold the automobile companies liable if their car is used in the commission of a crime. Who will be the judge and jury of the Tech companies if someone posts some hateful or incorrect information on their platform??? Is it even reasonable to suppose some humans could possibly “police” the postings in real time???

    I may not like what some of my Trumpeter “friends” post of Face Book – Who am I to say they cannot post what I disagree with??? Where is the line crossed??

  21. Jack,

    You’re a smart man! Much of the time social media is more trouble than it’s worth! True, you can keep up with certain individuals, but, it’s like the black hole of bs! It’s where brain cells go to die!

    And, I guess I’m just as guilty as everyone else on social media, even though I go through periods where I’m not very active, it’s still as a rabbit hole that you can’t stop yourself from jumping into. ??

  22. Gordon – great comparison – except for that you are comparing apples and oranges
    This country has existed for over two centuries because we have the ability to peacefully change a government we don’t like – In 18th Century England, that wasn’t exactly the case.

    As for the Internet – Can I say I saw this coming? Back in the early days, the Internet was limited to educational institutions and government labs. No commercial activity was allowed. People knew that if they violated “Netiquette”, the rules of use, they would have their access revoked. Private networks existed that did allow commercial use.

    Then in 1992 or 1993, the Internet was opened to public, commercial use. Bam – the birth of the “Ugly Americans”, people who had AOL accounts and basically said “I paid for this so I don’t have to follow any rules.” AOL responded by just sending out a zillion more floppy disks and CDs. They didn’t care.

    Don’t get me wrong, I find the Internet, commercial and all, to be highly useful, but it is fraught with danger, and always has been.

    We have two interrelated problems: greedy “platform” companies and greedy monopolies.

    We formed a government with three branches, and with checks and balances. Somehow we didn’t see the parallel in commerce. Our height of economic equality came when we had three powerful competing interests (not corporations): corporations, unions, and government. To some extent, these limited the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism with regulations and the threat of strikes. It wasn’t perfect, but closer to an equitable balance.

    Then Reagan and crew came in to destroy unions, denigrate and defang government, and voila, the mega-corporations rule alone. Add globalization and we have greedy corporations that we are afraid to deal with. They might pick up and relocate to Ireland or the Cayman Islands. You may have noticed that all credit cards are issued from SD and NV, states that have/had small populations and laws written by industry lobbyists.

    If I were from someplace like Tuvalu, I would offer corporations a friendly home – then maybe they would help prevent that atoll from being washed away by the rising ocean level. Probably not; they would just figure on finding another greed friendly country.

    As much as the civil libertarian streak resides here, some liability might bring more responsibility to the situation. It is a start.

    BTW – Paul – I agree – bad meme – you can shout anything in a private theater that the owners deem allowable, and no more. What should be said is you can’t yell fire in the halls of Congress or any other government building.

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