A protected proper? Free speech and social media
Just a decade ago this month, social media was being lauded in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Its role as an organizing instrument during the pro-democracy rallies received many callsinstead the “Facebook Revolution”.
With all its promises, we quickly learned that social media is only as good as it is used.
“The main difference between now and then is more than ever that our experiences on social media are determined by hidden decisions made by the social media companies themselves,” said Ramesh Srinivasan, who was in Tahrir Square at the time and researched how Twitter and Facebook work gave the voiceless a voice.
“It used to be more of an open pipe,” he said.
Srinivasan is now an author and professor in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. “What we see when we go online is probably the most sensational or inflammatory. You predict what is most likely to grab people’s attention.”
Big tech makes money when we get involved on social media, and the past four years have shown that lies and conspiracy theories are unfortunately more engaging than the truth.
“And the danger of this is what?” asked correspondent Lee Cowan.
“The danger is that we have an extremely distorted view of reality,” replied Srinivasan. “The edge is becoming the new normal.”
This is a study in the Trump presidency. His reality television roots taught him that controversy gets ratings. And he used his social media feeds the same way. No one has a larger “face-to-face” pulpit than the President of the United States, and no one before Mr. Trump has used it online with such dedication.
The attack on the Capitol changed all that.
After years of defending its presence on their platforms,, , and other social media giants have booted Mr. Trump claiming he caused a riot.
Amazon removed an entire site from its servers:which had become the place preferred by many conservatives.
“De-platformed” was a word we learned a lot about over the past week.
“I think Big Tech made a terrible mistake and is very, very bad for our country,” President Trump said on Tuesday. “You shouldn’t be doing it. But there is always a backlash when you do that.”
While many welcomed the move, the precedent to expel the leader of the free world also made many people uncomfortable. It is a tremendous power that only a few currently hold.
It’s not a new argument; The CEOs of the big tech companies have been called onto the carpet beforehand.
“Who the hell chose you and put you in charge of what the media can report and what the American people can hear?” Senator Ted Cruz interviewed technical leaders during an October 2020 hearing on the Communications Decency Act.
In 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “So you’re not going to put down lies or lies? I think it’s just a pretty simple yes or no.”
However, claiming that Big Tech is violating the first change by de-plating the platform it deems harmful could miss the bigger point.
Cowan asked, “Is it a violation of your freedom of speech to kick someone off one of these social media sites?”
“No, it isn’t,” replied Daphne Keller, who heads the platform regulation program at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center. “You are not subject to the first change. You are not the government.”
When it comes to digital language and the first change, she said, it gets messy pretty quickly.
Cowan said, “This is not just a user freedom argument, it’s a vendor argument, isn’t it?”
“People who sue platforms and want to force them to make speeches they don’t want to have a double First Amendment problem,” said Keller. “First, these people don’t have a First Amendment claim against the platforms, and second, the platforms have a First Amendment argument against the obligation to make a speech they disagree with.”
But what if the argument about regulation was rephrased – less about language and more about how Big Tech exposes us to this speech?
Yaël Eisenstat worked for Facebook as one of the electoral integrity directors, where she saw firsthand what these companies are doing with all of this content.
“This notion that it’s just this free flow of information is wrong. It’s a curated flow of information,” she said. “It’s a business model based on collecting as much human behavioral data as possible to create these little boxes of ours and then target us with advertisements.”
That’s all right when we buy sneakers, she said. But the same algorithms also apply to our politics. We will willingly follow ideas that crop up down the rabbit hole, and those who want their messages to get out in the know know the more controversial the better.
“I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg broke up with the idea, ‘I want to create a platform where the most outrageous, brutal and hateful speech wins.’ I don’t think that was his goal, “said Eisenstat. “But instead of blaming the platform for what someone publishes, I want them to be held responsible for it, not the actual speech on the platform, unless the speech is against the law, of course.”
“But it sounds like the business model is changing quite a bit,” said Cowan.
“One hundred percent.”
Big Tech has promised more transparency and better enforcement of its own rules for disseminating disinformation and misinformation.
Facebook removed more hate speech this year than ever before. Twitter, the same. Even Tik-Tok is more proactive.
But that will probably not be enough in the future.
Cowan asked Ramesh Srinivasan, “Can we trust you to do this kind of regulation yourself?”
“No. We shouldn’t trust Twitter or any private company to magically serve the public interest. I think, if at all, the past four years have taught us we can’t.”
Speaking about the challenges of regulating the Internet a year before the end of his second term, President Bill Clinton said, “It’s like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”
That was more than two decades ago. Times change, but the value of good administration doesn’t.
“This discussion is about how we want to live, how we want to be, as a country and as a people,” said Srinivasan. “Ultimately, this is a discussion of our humanity. I believe that you can force people to bind their actions to beliefs that may be a little more virtuous than their basic traits.”
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Story produced by John Goodwin. Editor: Ben McCormick.