Representatives from social media companies are set to appear before Congress this week to be questioned about supposed Russian interference in our elections and, more importantly, about their censorship of conservative speech here in the U.S. (and probably elsewhere, too).
Social media companies and their extremely wealthy and powerful owners have been accused, quite credibly, of stifling conservative speech in the name of preventing hate speech, harassment, bullying, abuse, and trolling, among other (specious) excuses.
Typically, these companies respond, when questioned about their questionable censorship, by blaming their supposedly unbiased, mathematical, scientific, computer-driven algorithms, as if algorithms are not written and executed by human beings who have political biases, which can be inserted at many points in the process (e.g., when determining subjective variables such as “relevancy and authoritativenes;” whether something constitutes fact versus opinion, meme, or narrative; and even whether a user is a troll or a bot).
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey will meet with the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday. The committee
plans to delve into Twitter’s powerful algorithm — and the way the company polices hate speech, harassment and other ills on its platform.
[emphasis added to quotes]
With any luck the representatives on the committee will be tech savvy enough to know when they’re being gaslighted and respond appropriately.
Google, which is currently colluding with the oppressive government of China to develop a search engine that will return results for Chinese citizens that include only what their government wants them to see, apparently is not sending representatives to the hearings. Google is accused of selectively censoring search results for political reasons, mostly at the expense of conservatives. Although Google is skipping the public hearings, they may meet individually with various lawmakers.
Google seemingly prefers gaslight to sunlight.
How convenient. If their representatives explain their algorithm to naive, ignorant, and/or oblivious lawmakers behind closed doors, then nobody from the public who knows better can gainsay them.
Something must be done, and soon, to stop this blatant censorship of conservative speech and commerce. Either We the People will vote with our feet (or, in this case, with our computers and phones) and desert these social media giants for better, more open platforms (when and if any exist), or the government will have to step in to regulate these self-appointed speech monitors, or lawsuits will have to be filed to bring them to heel.
How can the government regulate private companies? Well, the government does it all the time. Would these same companies be allowed to discriminate against liberal speech? Black speech? Female speech? Of course not.
[T]hese are actually public companies – at least technically. Remember that Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR), Google (GOOGL) (which again controls YouTube), and Apple (AAPL) each have their shares publicly traded on the stock exchanges. That status of being publicly listed and publicly traded comes with broad implications as well as specific responsibilities both to shareholders and for the public.
[S]ocial media platforms have demonstrated they are rapacious monopolies on the model of Standard Oil of the late 19th century. At a minimum, Google, Facebook, and Twitter need to be forced to spin off their advertising sales businesses and their tech development businesses into separate, independent entities. They also need to be forced to either act as platforms or act as publishers. They are either responsible for their content and are able to control it…or they are free from liability for what is distributed on their platform but they can no longer make any judgments on user content or conduct. …
Another argument is restraint of trade:
… Apple, Facebook, YouTube and Spotify simultaneously “de-platformed” Alex Jones and Infowars. Twitter held out briefly, and then, in response to demands from liberals, also banned Jones and Infowars. … [S]imultaneous bans and suspensions across platforms can hardly be coincidental. The phrase “combination or conspiracy in restraint of trade” comes to mind. …
When individuals or organizations are censored by social media, especially when it’s done in seeming collusion among the companies (perhaps even with traditional media as well as with billionaire progressives and Democrat operatives), these companies interfere with interstate and international commerce, which is under the purview of the federal government.
Many now-censored sites depend upon income from advertising and subscriptions, or by selling paraphernalia or collecting donations from supporters.
Social media companies have entered into a contract with their users. The unfairly banned could, therefore, file lawsuits to explore whether or not social media companies are fairly applying their policies (contract terms) across the board, a question which has nothing to do with the First Amendment but which does involve business and contract law as well as the federal government’s mandate to police interstate commerce.
Social media companies enjoy protection from libel and slander laws, and from sanction when illegal content is posted on their platforms, on the premise that they’re simply a tool that others use to communicate, not unlike the service you receive from a phone company, which provides the means of communication but which doesn’t police or censor what you say while using the tools they provide.
By censoring content, social media platforms act as publishers, assuming responsibility for what’s being said. Why, then, should they be immune from slander, libel, or other laws?
As one writer explained:
[I]t’s been tenable to hold traditional media organizations accountable for what they publish because they can and usually do exercise pretty tight control over the content which they disseminate. However, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and iTunes would face a nightmare scenario if they could be held liable as publishers for the content which their users post through their services. Just imagine if Facebook the company could be sued for any post made by any user on its platform.
Further, the sheer number of posts and audio and video recordings being constantly uploaded to these sites 24-7-365 makes it impossible for humans to review them all before they are distributed to other users.
Which is why social media has been immune from legal consequences.
The idea clearly behind Section 230 [the law that confers their immunity] is that these websites are more like a public park where someone might get up on a soapbox with a megaphone and speak to whoever happens to be within earshot, and no one would hold the groundskeeper of a public park liable for what someone, unbeknownst to the groundskeeper, said to a crowd from atop a soapbox one afternoon with a megaphone.
Based on this concept, Facebook cannot be held liable for what its users post on its website, and indeed without such protection it’s unlikely that any company would provide such a service for fear of losing lawsuit after lawsuit.
Currently, it’s more economical for these companies to pretend to be simple facilitators of content publishing, not only because they don’t have to worry about defending themselves from accusations of slander and libel, or copyright violations, but also because it costs far less for them to simply allow free and open use of their platforms instead of hiring an army of people to police content in real time.
But the companies are nevertheless trying to censor (or, to put it more kindly, moderate) on the cheap, by using machine algorithms to enforce a wholly subjective and non-transparent “community standard”, while still maintaining immunity from legal consequences.
Either social media companies must go back to the Wild West system where all they did was to provide the platform, or they go whole hog and moderate everything that goes onto their platforms, based upon a wholly transparent and equally applied set of criteria, which will cost them a lot more than it costs now to simply run their algorithms and fix alleged “glitches” or “mistakes” after the damage has already been done to the censored.
Then there’s the issue of campaign law. Some social media companies are now apparently taking sides in elections, deliberately shadow-banning candidates or even (illegally?) banning political candidates’ communications and advertisements.
That Facebook and Twitter can pull a candidate’s campaign ad and demand they edit it before it can be distributed should terrify everyone and demonstrate to us all just how fragile the ability to use social media is for those with unpopular views.
Talk about interfering in an election!
Selectively censoring the campaign ads of one political party at least arguably constitutes an in-kind donation to the other party, unless the value of the donation is duly reported, or provided that the social media company can prove that it’s not deliberately singling out certain candidates’ messages for censorship. (It’s worth tying them up in court to make them prove that they’re not doing this deliberately.)
Is it possible that these companies, which are staffed mostly by left-leaning progressives, are not deliberately or at least subconsciously discriminating against conservative points of view? That seems unlikely.
Sketchy behavior could be inadvertent, depending upon what happens when some users of a platform report, block, or negatively critique comments, posts, and pages of other users.
Do their automated systems ban first, and ask questions later? It appears to be so, but their systems are hardly transparent, so it’s hard to know for sure.
Do their automated systems take into consideration the distinct possibility that a well-funded army of paid political trolls might misuse their system, working overtime to report anything with which they disagree, just to get opposing views off the Internet?
In fact, that’s exactly what seems to be happening and so far they appear to be getting away with it. Consider, for example, that Twitter decides who is a “bad faith actor,” in part, by examining
who mutes you, who follows you, who retweets you, who blocks you, etc.
Who mutes you and who blocks you. Get blocked and muted enough, and Twitter blocks you, because suddenly you’ve become a “bad faith actor.” See any problem with that system?
Have you heard Dorsey say that Twitter doesn’t censor speech or ideology, it moderates behavior? But apparently not necessarily your behavior. Also apparently, they may punish you based on someone else’s behavior.
In 2014 a study from the Pew Research Journalism Project found that “liberals are more likely to block or unfriend someone online because they disagree with something they have posted.” Without diving into the merits this kind of ideological blocking, let’s just examine the effect.
We can assume this behavior demonstrated on Facebook carries over to liberals on Twitter, and there’s some pretty compelling anecdotal evidence to back it up given the popularity of Block Together.
Block Together is a tool that was developed to prevent harassment on Twitter by creating mass blocking lists. An individual can create a list of Twitter users they block, then share that list so others can easily upload it to their profile and block those individuals. Some of these lists include hundreds of thousands of Twitter accounts. This ability to share and upload blocklists can be abused by those on the left side of the political spectrum, perhaps unintentionally.
Consider this situation as reported by one Twitter user:
And right now with almost 50,000 followers, 8,000 people I follow and millions of impressions monthly, I only block 11 people.
But many people block me and other conservatives, and they block early and often. That blocking and reporting of accounts leads to more conservatives being sidelined by Twitter – and that’s just not right.
For example, I regularly encounter tweets that are missing when quoted by people I follow. This either means the tweet was deleted or the user has blocked me.
When I check I often find that a user who has blocked me is someone I have never interacted with. So why the block? Often, it’s due to being on a block list created by a liberal activist group. …
But Twitter now uses factors such as the number of people who have blocked an account to determine whether to classify it as “low quality” content. The company also uses the number of complaints or reports on the account. If the number of these exceeds certain thresholds, an account can be deemed low quality and access to tweets from that user are severely diminished.
Given the propensity for people on the left to block content more than those on the right, Twitter ends up with an inordinate number of conservative accounts being affected.
This collection of block lists, combined with the excessive number of complaints lodged, has resulted in folks on the left being given a veto over content they dislike. …
If that’s not bad enough, Twitter also engages in what one writer calls
Guilt by Association
Rating accounts based on their interests and connections creates viewpoint discrimination.
- Using “who follows you”, “who you follow” and “who you retweet” creates a guilt by association.
- It takes a small number of accounts with a low quality rating and extends that shadow to others who have interactions with them.
- This generates a dynamic that constantly increases the number of affected accounts based simply on an affinity for conservative ideas.
Again, while the intent may have been to improve user experience, some of these metrics had an easily predictable outcome of disadvantaging right of center users. There is a well-documented tendency of left of center users to report and use blocking and reporting tools considerably more than the right, up to three times as much. This has created the situation now where Quality Filter Discrimination (QFD) is de facto viewpoint discrimination.
Doesn’t this all seem to constitute some rather serious flaws in their process, especially during elections, when every day counts?
In a very comprehensive overview of the issue, this article also names a number of government agencies that may have to act to reverse the censorship of conservatives on social media:
- Federal Election Commission– By providing an advantage to one party in election communications, Twitter may have made an in-kind contribution. This could extend beyond individual races if the advantage is found to have been systemic in nature.
- Securities and Exchange Commission– Public statements claiming a content neutral platform, while operating one that is biased in outcome, could be deemed violations.
- Federal Trade Commission– Due to the monopoly-like nature of Twitter in the marketplace and the need for its services by almost all public entities, Twitter could face anti-trust scrutiny.
- Federal Communications Commission– Twitter could be reclassified as a publisher to remove exemption as an internet provider under the Communications Decency Act.
Shouldn’t these companies, at the very least, suspend their use of these moderation systems until the mid-term elections are over?
Astoundingly, instead of being concerned about the potential impact government action may have on his company’s bottom line, today Twitter CEO Dorsey and his lawyer actually threatened to censor President Trump, should he violate Twitter’s amorphous, biased standards!
Twitter said Tuesday that not even President Donald Trump is immune from being kicked off the platform if his tweets cross a line with abusive behavior.
The social media company’s rules against vitriolic tweets offer leeway for world leaders whose statements are newsworthy, but that “is not a blanket exception for the president or anyone else,” Twitter legal and policy chief Vijaya Gadde told POLITICO in an interview alongside CEO Jack Dorsey. …
Dorsey, who’s due to testify before two congressional committees Wednesday about his company’s content practices, said he receives notifications on his phone for Trump’s Twitter account. But asked if he would weigh in personally to remove Trump from the platform, he declined to get into specifics.
Let’s hope that very, very soon the representatives of We the Conservative People get into some very real specifics with Dorsey and the rest of the social media Mechagodzillas.
One would think their shareholders would be interested.
Either these companies are neutral platforms or they’re publishers. They can’t be both. From that same story:
The Twitter CEO said he was reluctant to appear solo without the other internet giants, Facebook and Google, which have also been accused of anti-conservative bias.
“We’re happy to have a conversation with our peers, because we don’t think this is an issue focused on just us alone. So we were attempting to get our peers up there as well and be joined by them, rather than be singled out,” Dorsey said.
“We don’t think that’s fair.”
Consider the irony.