How to deal with the social media monster
by Steven Hill, Salon, Jan 16, 2021
The beautiful dream of an open and free internet, serving as a global agora of unlimited free speech to provide for more popular participation in U.S. democracy, just crashed and burned one more time.
The gripping images of a mob ransacking the U.S. Capitol are evidence enough of the destructive potential when you hand to a callous, egomaniacal demagogue unlimited access to what has been nobly called “social media.”
Let’s drop the outdated warm, friendly-sounding misnomer of “social” media.
Not “social” media: But “Big Tech” media
There is little that is “social” about it. In reality, this new media, which relies on hyper-monetized digital portals that deliver a gushing firehose of misinformation and disinformation, is pretty “unsocial” and should be known as “Big Tech media.” The companies that operate them — Facebook, Twitter, Google/YouTube and more — have stood by haplessly for years as President Donald Trump and others have abused their services.
Of course, those companies were quite happy to rake in advertising dollars, as their users stayed glued to the train wreck that has become U.S. politics.
Playing with Democracy
Since the birth of Big Tech Media ten years ago, the 240-year-old American republic has been subjected to a grand experiment.
Can a nation’s news and information infrastructure, which is a lifeblood of any democracy, be dependent on digital technologies that allow unlimited audience size, combined with frictionless “virality” and algorithmic (non-human) curation of massive volumes of mis- and disinformation, that can be spread with unprecedented ease and reach??
The world has never before seen media and communication technologies like those used by Facebook, Google/YouTube, Twitter and all their kin.
The evidence of the damage to the social, economic, political and cultural fabric that they systematically trigger has become frighteningly clear. This grand experiment has veered off course, like a Frankenstein monster marauding across the landscape.
High time for a reset
As to the hot-button issue at hand, revoking of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, it is more than ironic that this law — contrary to its official name — has allowed the Big Tech Media platforms to have near blanket immunity — even as they acted in a very corrosive fashion.
To his credit, President-elect Joe Biden previously called for a crackdown on Big Tech — including revoking Section 230. But the Democrats should have acted much earlier, say in 2009, when Hillary Clinton — then the new U.S. Secretary of State — called for a “reset” to improve Russia relations.
The United States of today would be in far better shape if we as a nation had focused back then instead on a great reset with the Big Tech companies.
But that was impossible at the time — not least because the Democratic Party had discovered the deep coffers of the Silicon Valley moguls as a great source of campaign cash, as well as a revolving door for highly lucrative employment for their own political staffers.
Facebook as the main culprit and target
So hopefully the Biden administration has more clarity than the Obama team, because it is time to hit reset in a major way.
Not only to save our republic, but also to provide the best chance to redesign these digital media technologies — so that we rediscover the promise and decrease the dangers.
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, and billions more on the Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Instagram. That’s a huge chunk of humanity’s global population of 8 billion.
As the world has been coping with a global pandemic, a mere 100 pieces of COVID 19 misinformation on Facebook were shared 1.7 million times and had 117 million views.
That is far more than the daily viewers of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, ABC News, Fox News and CNN combined.
Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg excels in appearing both clueless and doe-like in his appearances before the U.S. Congress. Yet, as the Wall Street Journal reports that in 2018, Facebook executives scaled back a successful effort to make the site less divisive. Why? Because it was decreasing their audience share.
De facto media, but without any regulation or liability
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 news stream. That results in a degree of accountability — including potentially libel lawsuits and other forms of Madisonian-like checks and balances.
Algorithm curators are on automatic pilot
But with Big Tech Media, it’s the wild wild West. In order to make the most out of their advertising-on-steroids machine, Facebook, Google and Twitter use robot algorithm curators that are on automatic pilot. That is eerily like killer drones for which no human bears responsibility or liability — and is dangerous in a democracy.
Non-human curation, when combined with unlimited audience size and frictionless amplification, has completely failed as a foundation for a democratic republic’s media infrastructure. It is time for a major reset.
Revoke Section 230 now, as a first step…
President Biden should start with revoking Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. There are many pros and cons to this strategy — endlessly debated by leaders and organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (con) and long-time Biden advisor Bruce Reed (pro).
Revoking Section 230 is not a perfect solution, but it would make Big Tech Media more responsible, more deliberative and potentially liable for the worst of the toxic content — including illegal content — that is published, broadcast and promoted by their media platforms.
… but more needs to be done
Yet let’s be clear: Some of the worst outrages that we have seen would likely not be impacted by 230’s revocation. For example, even as invaders dressed like Viking barbarians were ransacking the House Speaker’s office, President Donald Trump encouraged his quasi-storm troopers by tweeting:
These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots.
He posted that on Twitter and his Facebook pages.
False and provocative
While that statement about a stolen election is false and provocative, other media outlets publish untrue nonsense all the time. It would be difficult to legally prove that any particular individuals or institutions were harmed or incited by this or many of the president’s other outrageous statements.
The same goes for President Trump’s inflammatory speech given the morning before the riots, in which he stated “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength,” as he encouraged protesters to march to the Capitol. That incitement was broadcast over YouTube to over a million viewers, but revoking 230 wouldn’t have made Google liable.
Facebook: Worshipping money, always late to act
Revoking 230 probably would not have impacted Facebook’s outrageous non-decision — yet another one — to wait until the day of the terrorist attack to ban a pro-Trump page, called Red-State Secession, with 8,000 followers, that was used to organize and incite violence at the demonstrations.
Group members shared home addresses of perceived “enemies” in Washington, D.C. — including federal judges and members of Congress — with comments featuring photos of assault rifles and other weapons, violent emojis and cajoling people to occupy the Capitol and be “prepared to use force to defend civilization.”
Global carnage from fanning the flames of racism
We have seen other outrages which probably would not have been impacted by revocation of Section 230. Big Tech Media has been used for disinformation campaigns in over 70 countries to undermine elections — even helping elect a quasi-dictator in the Philippines— to widely amplify extremism, such as child abusers and pornographers livestreaming the most despicable acts perpetrated against victims. There was also the Christchurch mass murderer of Muslims livestreaming his carnage over Facebook, that then was seen on YouTube by millions.
Losing Section 230 immunity wouldn’t impact the fact that a majority of YouTube climate change videos denies the science, and 70% of what YouTube’s 2 billion userswatch comes from its recommendation algorithm.
Devilishly irresponsible, but hyper-effective
Nor would it change that a mere $42,000 worth of Facebook ads promoting disinformation about climate change reached approximately 8 million people, especially targeted at older men in rural areas.
Let’s be clear: Facebook, Google and Twitter’s “engagement algorithms” recommend and amplify sensationalized “crazy town” user content for one reason — to maximize profits by increasing users’ screen time and exposure to more ads.
Audience share above all else
The recent use of warning labels are weak substitutes for actual curation. These greedy companies — which are ostensibly liberal to progressive politically — exhibit an authoritarian tendency to destroy not just the social and political order, but the rationality of Western societies.
All their fake noble pretensions about an “open and free internet” notwithstanding, 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 truths, sensemaking and common ground.
And yet, the Big Tech companies still refuse to de-weaponize their platforms. Ejecting Donald Trump from their services does nothing to change their destructive business model. All it does is to remove the most visible evidence of it. And in that sense, it is a self-serving act that should fool no one.
A better model: Investor-owned utilities
So revoking Section 230 is just a first step toward reining in these dangerous technologies. What else needs to be done?
To answer this, we have to realize that these businesses are creating the new public infrastructure of the digital age. So the federal government should require a whole new business model: Treat these companies more like investor-owned utilities.
Historically, that has been the approach used by the government in other industries — such as telephone, railroad and power generation — which were either monopolies or oligopolies.
Ironically, even Mark Zuckerberg himself has suggested such an approach.
Digital licenses to establish new rules
As utilities, they would be guided by a digital license — just like traditional brick-and-mortar companies must apply for various licenses and permits — that defines the rules and regulations of the new business model.
For example, these companies never asked for permission to start sucking up our private data — or to track our physical locations. Nor did they ask if they could mass collect the data behind every “like,” “share” and “follow” into psychographic profiles that can be used to target each user. They simply started this data grab secretly — forging their destructive brand of “surveillance capitalism.”
They know what you like, what you think, where you go, which church, restaurants and clubs you frequent — they know you better than your spouse or therapist. And that is pretty alarming.
Fight surveillance capitalism
Now that we know, should society continue to allow this? Shouldn’t the default regulation require platforms to obtain users’ permission to collect any of our personal data, i.e., opt-in rather than opt-out? It seems clear that the status quo’s dangers outweigh any benefits — such as hyper-targeted advertising that allegedly caters to our individual desires.
A Biden alliance with Europe
To strengthen the United States’ defenses in that critical regard, it should help the incoming Biden Administration that the European Union — through its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — has shifted the playing field. But the EU is making a mistake with its recently proposed Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act — which rely too much on a “competition and consumers” frame. This approach is not at all well-suited to dealing with the extreme toxicity of the digital media platform business model.
Both the EU and the Biden administration need to incorporate other frames, besides a utility model, such as a “product liability” or a fiduciary “duty of care” frame. This is a kind of Hippocratic oath and precautionary principle that entails a legal responsibility to “first, do no harm.” British authorities have been trying to erect the foundations of this approach.
Promoting competition and innovation
As was the case, for example, with AT&T and the telecom industry, the new model should bring about competition by limiting the mega-scale audience size of these Big Tech media machines. A number of lead organizations have called for an anti-monopoly break-up of these companies — like AT&T once was split into the Baby Bells.
This is a useful approach to take, but let’s be clear: If Facebook is forced to spin off WhatsApp and its two billion users, and nothing else about the business model changes, that will just result in another new media behemoth. More competition is good, but far less so if the newly emerged (still quite) Big Tech firms are competing according to the same market rules upon which the companies themselves have decided.
Beyond reducing the size, the new utility model also should restrain the use of specific “engagement” techniques that are contributing to social isolation, teen depression and suicide, as well as damaging U.S. democracy. These techniques include hyper-targeting of content, automated recommendations, addictive behavioral nudges (like autoplay and pop-up screens), as well as the dark design patterns and filter bubbles that allow manipulation.
A Digital Decency Act
The United States should also update its laws to ensure they apply to the online world. For example, the United States has laws like the Children’s Television Act that since 1990 has restricted violence and advertising for Saturday morning cartoons and other children’s programming. Yet Google’s YouTube/YouTubeKids has violated these — and other — rules for many years, resulting in online lawlessness. The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees children’s programming, should examine how to apply existing law to the online digital platforms.
Similarly, the Federal Elections Commission should rein in the quasi-lawless world of online political ads and donor reporting — which has far fewer rules and less transparency than ads in broadcasting and traditional media sources.
How subversive Big Tech media really are
These frequent outrages against our democracy — and humanity — are supposedly the price we must pay for being able to post our summer vacation and new puppy pics to our “friends.” Or for the neighbor’s kid’s dance video going viral, or for political dissidents and whistleblowers to alert the world to their just causes. Those are all important uses — but the price being paid is very high. We can do better.
Ultimately, these companies have pursued a business model that, soon after the end of Soviet-style communism, have caused our Western societies to be transformed into a model of electronic surveillance that had always been the dream of totalitarian dictators.
Choosing naivete or realism?
These “Soviet Valley” businesses are creating the new infrastructure of the digital age — including search engines, global portals for news and networking, web-based movies, music and live streaming, GPS-based navigation apps, online commercial marketplaces and digital labor market platforms.
They tell us that they are providing all of this for free, that all we have to do is give them unlimited access to our private data. But that has turned out to be a very high price indeed. Especially as people increase the use of these services and technologies in their daily lives, which are being interwoven ever deeper into the very fabric of our societies.
Toward a new business model
A new business model for this digital infrastructure — guided by the right guardrails — would be able to retain the valuable uses while reducing the danger. Like the promise of the internet itself, Facebook, Google and Twitter started out small — and then blew up into monopolistic giants. They have established their own toxic and greedy rules that are a threat to our democracy — as well as to free market competition. This is one of the gravest oversights in the history of American democracy.
For societies long allied with the United States — especially Europe — willful American ignorance about these firms’ hyper-intrusive practices has become part of a growing transatlantic rift.
The European Union has earned a reputation as the world’s foremost regulator of Big Tech companies. Now, it’s time for the United States to do its part. It is time for the days when these monopoly companies self-regulate themselves to come to an end.
Author’s note: Thanks to Stephan-Götz Richter for his invaluable editorial input and his shaping of the broader global argument.