Who’s Talking?

I finally got around to reading an article about Facebook by a Professor Scott Galloway, sent to me by a reader. In it, Galloway was considering the various “fixes” that have been suggested in the wake of continuing revelations about the degree to which Facebook and other social media platforms have facilitated America’s divisions.

There have been a number of similar articles, but what Galloway did better than most was explain the origin of Section 230 of the Communications Act in language we non-techie people can understand.

In most industries, the most robust regulator is not a government agency, but a plaintiff’s attorney. If your factory dumps toxic chemicals in the river, you get sued. If the tires you make explode at highway speed, you get sued. Yes, it’s inefficient, but ultimately the threat of lawsuits reduces regulation; it’s a cop that covers a broad beat. Liability encourages businesses to make risk/reward calculations in ways that one-size-fits-all regulations don’t. It creates an algebra of deterrence.

Social media, however, is largely immunized from such suits. A 1996 law, known as “Section 230,” erects a fence around content that is online and provided by someone else. It means I’m not liable for the content of comments on the No Mercy website, Yelp isn’t liable for the content of its user reviews, and Facebook, well, Facebook can pretty much do whatever it wants.

There are increasing calls to repeal or reform 230. It’s instructive to understand this law, and why it remains valuable. When Congress passed it — again, in 1996 — it reasoned online companies were like bookstores or old-fashioned bulletin boards. They were mere distribution channels for other people’s content and shouldn’t be liable for it.

Seems reasonable. So–why the calls for its repeal? Galloway points to the multiple ways in which the information and communication environments have changed since 1996.

In 1996, 16% of Americans had access to the Internet, via a computer tethered to a phone cord. There was no Wi-Fi. No Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or YouTube — not even Friendster or MySpace had been birthed. Amazon sold only books. Section 230 was a fence protecting a garden plot of green shoots and untilled soil.

Today, as he points out, some 3 billion individuals use Facebook, and fifty-seven percent of the world population uses some sort of social media. Those are truly astonishing numbers.

I have previously posted about externalities–the ability of manufacturers and other providers to compete more successfully in the market by “offloading” certain of their costs to society at large. When it comes to social media, Galloway tells us that its externalities have grown as fast as the platforms’ revenues–and thanks to Section 230, society has borne the costs.

In sum, behind the law’s liability shield, tech platforms have morphed from Model UN members to Syria and North Korea. Only these Hermit Kingdoms have more warheads and submarines than all other nations combined.

As he points out, today’s social media has the resources to play by the same rules as other powerful media. Bottom line: We need a new fence. We need to redraw Section 230 so that it that protects society from the harms of social media companies without destroying  their  usefulness or economic vitality.

What we have learned since 1996 is that Facebook and other social media companies are not neutral platforms.  They aren’t bulletin boards. They are rigorously managed– personalized for each user, and actively boosting or suppressing certain content. Galloway calls that “algorithmic amplification” and it didn’t exist in 1996.

There are evidently several bills pending in Congress that purport to address the problem–aiming at the ways in which social media platforms weaponize these algorithms. Such approaches should avoid raising credible concerns about chilling free expression.

Reading the essay gave me some hope that we can deal–eventually–with the social damage being inflicted by social media. It didn’t, however, suggest a way to counter the propaganda spewed daily by Fox News or Sinclair or their clones…

14 thoughts on “Who’s Talking?

  1. Getting something done requires two parties that are willing to work together. As long as the Republicans can only say NO to everything, it is hard to imagine much getting done. But one can hope.

  2. You can read all the articles you want to regarding “fixing” what Facebook does as a social media sharing platform, but what you’re really doing is learning about it so you can “control” Facebook.

    The government has controlled FB for a long time since the CIA mostly funded Mark’s creation so they could have access to it. Matt Damon even made a movie with this theme where the CIA director and Mark have power struggles over how much access the government has over users.

    It’s the freedom vs security argument.

    Mark has already moved on to the metaverse and augmented reality with Facebook and I don’t blame him. That’s the future of social interaction.

    Any social media platform as large as Facebook should have been nationalized and democratized a long time ago for the very reasons we discuss it today. The main question is what are we sharing on Facebook that makes it destructive or harmful?

    As Sheila rightfully notes, there are plenty of other media entities which spew dangerous material that is shared or have access to advertise on Facebook. If we are worried about “misinformation” or “disinformation” we need to begin with all sources–not just the software/application platforms like Facebook which provide us with the place to do so.

  3. Big Tech censors conservatives more predominantly than liberals. Fact checkers are not really reliable in their bias either. Either the platform should be free and open and gave protections from those on its platforms or have those protections removed. Elections seem to be bought and won. Studies show FB has swayed election voting by up to 6% points in favor of big government spending politicians. Our children are the ones that we are imprisoning with huge debts. Its their freedoms we want to give away to our social engineering. We need change that we can agree upon, but not what is gained through censorship.

  4. Meta knows exactly what it’s doing and it knows how to stop it. The fact that it is so much more profitable to keep on keeping on makes it unlikely to stop on its own. We need to make the providers just as responsible as the posters. Let them get sued for posts that cause children to commit suicide, for example. That might make them change their algorithms.

  5. John S, Your comments made me do some of my own research.

    I found a good article from Pew research that concludes that the opinion that social media censors conservative voices is a popular one.
    https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/08/19/most-americans-think-social-media-sites-censor-political-viewpoints/
    This report in no way explored the actual premise, only public opinions about the accusation, so in a way, this might play to confirmation bias, without actually adding any new facts to the debate.

    I did find that one study from Politico that says that conservative content on social media outnumbers liberal content by 10 to 1, so nothing directly on this subject, except maybe maybe proving the inverse and that social media is a more powerful tool for conservative voices than it is for liberals and it spreads nearly unchecked.
    https://www.politico.com/news/2020/10/26/censorship-conservatives-social-media-432643

    After a little a little more google searching, I found a reference to a credible study by NYU Stern Center for Business and human rights and I found a link to the actual study; “False Accusation: The Unfounded Claim that Social Media Companies Censor Conservatives“
    https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b6df958f8370af3217d4178/t/60187b5f45762e708708c8e9/1612217185240/NYU+False+Accusation_2.pdf
    Read the executive summary if you don’t wan to wade into all of the details, but there were a few interesting conclusions.

    “But the claim of anti-conservative animus is itself a form of disinformation: a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it. No trustworthy large- scale studies have determined that conservative content is being removed for ideological reasons or that searches are being manipulated to favor liberal interests.”

    If you actually believe the false claims, then I can see how you might view rules against misinformation as censorship.

    “Even anecdotal evidence of supposed bias tends to crumble under close examination. Take Trump’s exclusion from Twitter and Facebook. These actions, while unprecedented, were reasonable responses to Trump’s repeated violation of platform rules against undermining election results and inciting violence. If anything, the platforms previously had given Trump a notably wide berth because of his position, seeking to appease him, despite his demagogic and routinely false claims.”

    This is the most stark example of social media platforms trying to avoid censuring right wing content to the detriment of public safety and national security.

    This report also goes on to suggest fixes, and among them reforms to Section 230.

  6. Sheila is right: Facebook is not simply a bulletin board. Imagine a bulletin board where its very reach increases whenever more things get posted. Then imagine a bulletin board where those who love hateful speech understand that the more they post, the bigger their message impacts. Now imagine that billboard where its owner makes more money the more hateful speech gets posted. What do you think will happen? It’s called Facebook. And Zuckerberg is rich beyond measure. Yeah, let’s see if he will do anything to reduce the golden eggs falling from his goose.

  7. John S could not be more wrong, IMO. If researchers use a more historically accurate definition of the word “conservative” I’d be willing to bet that very few posts are deleted. What IS being deleted are posts and accounts that are intended to enrage readers. And that rage is detected by FB’s algorithms and promoted to millions of accounts that have shown an appetite for such posts.

    The accountholders that originate the posts that serve as fire-starter are not conservatives. They are nihilists and while they are certainly within their rights to BELIEVE in nihilism and its typical successor, totalitarianism, they do NOT have the right to promote it publicly through lies and incendiary talk intended to goad readers into destroying our systems of law and government.

    And, as the authors of this blog and the article on Section 230 agree, Facebook shouldn’t be held harmless for playing a key role in amplifying the messages to their massive reader base. Their customers serve as the “fuel” to the fire. Hip-hop artist Travis Scott shouldn’t be held harmless for encouraging his fans to storm the stage, resulting in 9 deaths and many injuries. That young man is going to get a deep legal education in liability real soon.

  8. I have been watching the “Secretary of State” series on Netflix. In one episode, after she becomes POTUS, they confront a social media giant whose algorithims support the spread of hate speech. The POTUS recognizes that fear and rage are addictive. They counter this by allowing S Korea to produce social media platforms in the US which have more controls over what is viewed. This creates a competitive force which in turn would force that media giant to do more with their uncontrolled algorithims.

    I think Zuckerberg had a vision in which Facebook connected more people across the globe. He failed to forsee that like all human inventions that Facebook could be utilized by those who prey on children and totalitarian propaganda. There is now a platform where one person can address billions of people across the globe. That creates a realm of promise and peril.

    Should Facebook and other social media sites be forced to stop using algorithims? And if that occurred, would it be an infringement on free speech? Can systems be created to interfere with terrorist connnections or hate speech that do not infringe upon free speech? Well, I hope so.

    As it is Facebook fits the description of the faerie realms. It is fair and perilous. It has proven to be an opportunity for people with good and bad intentions to communicate their factual or fictional realities. Perhaps the only way to counter hate speech and misinformation is for parents and educators to teach children early on how to use good critical thinking when on social media sites. The only problem is that parents of the far right, will not teach their kids to use good critical thinking. I can only hope that educators will be empowered to help the children of parents lost to conspiracies and misinformation choose to leave the insane path their parents walk upon.

  9. This is reminiscent of “The Little Shop of Horrors,” but it’s big horrors.
    One of the differences between a book shop and FB, unless it’s a religious themed shop that will not carry “certain” books, is that FB controls its distribution of material with, it appears, a different agenda.
    ‘Section 230″ needs to be changed, but how will that be done, and by whom?

  10. Zuckerberg failed to recognize that magats, when given a choice, make the wrong choice and go low consistently. Then they blame antifa, BLM and Libs for all the damage caused by magats.

  11. While I consider Sheila’s blog to be the most important classroom in defense of the future that I have ever been in, I consider this post to be her most meaningful contribution. It effectively opens a conversation about how the future of humankind can be restored to have more positive possibilities as an alternative to letting it continue to degenerate helplessly into dystopia.

    We can see the destructive force of nuclear weapons but our senses are helpless in revealing the new more destructive force of social/entertainment media. Sudden releases of energy destroy suddenly and obviously while other rearrangements of energy like anthropogenic global warming are as destructive but the time between cause and effect is multi-generational. The social/entertainment media threat is more like AGW than nuclear war but just as destructive as either.

  12. I would venture to say, that one side or the other and whoever is in the presidential Palace so to speak, will definitely declare martial law. There is no cooperation between parties, groups or unions. there is so much divisiveness between members of the same party, that cooperation between separate and distinct parties will never happen.

    The previous president of these United States was very close to doing it himself, and if he is back in power, he will definitely do it! He is not going to put up with debate or negotiation. And, as usual, the group with the better ideas usually twiddles their thumbs all the while thinking what to do, what to do, until the train leaves the depot, then it’s too late!

    There is going to be a huge shake-up in society. And most people are going to be aggrieved with it. But, as they say the handwriting is on the wall! That’s in the Book of Daniel by the way. Just as the sky darkens to the West during warm spring afternoon, it’s a warning that a storm is approaching. Now, how bad is that storm? Well, I suppose we’ll find out. I doubt if it will be good. Remember, absolute power corrupts absolutely, so not only does absolute power corrupt but the flow of money.

    One can have desire without will or will without desire, but, neither one of these is in great Supply. You can recognize the signs from looking at history, even as recent as Nazi Germany. But still, no will and definitely no desire to rock the boat. Eventually, someone will arise with the courage to do what’s mentioned above, and Everything Will Change forever here. The comments on this blog are passionate, but unfortunately, they fall on deaf ears! So, what to do again? Well, it’s Way Beyond The Power of mortal men.

    Humanity is once again on a collision course with its past, its history! Because when you really think about it, mankind does not learn its lesson from history. The only difference with the present, we have countries who are more than likely building weapons in space, and every single individual is connected to every other individual on this planet. Those who do not have anyone’s best interest at heart have the ability to get their message out to tens or hundreds of millions of people. And, it’s never been this way before in humankind’s entirety of History. and, when history repeats once again, it probably will be the last time!

  13. One brief comment –
    The idea that algorithms have anything to do with “free speech” is akin to the idea that a poor person giving a speech on a street corner has equal “free speech” with the rich person who parks their sound truck across the street and starts blaring their voice every time the poor person opens her/his mouth.

    Algorithms are about tailoring and restricting speech to those posts that make Zuckerberg richer. I doubt that he ever had benevolent ideas bout Facebook. I rather suspect that he just wanted to be like a Gates, or a Jerry Yang, creating the great “new”thing that would make himself very rich and famous.

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