The Editorial Board: We are able to now not ignore the self-evident issues posed by social media | Editorial
News Editorial Board
There is, not inappropriately, uneasiness about the role of social media in the racist shooting that took 10 lives in Buffalo this month. The accused killer absorbed some of the worst impulses of humankind through its channels, which he also used to livestream his murderous assault. Yet the First Amendment protects social media, as surely as it does speech, religion, or the press.
Combine those factors with Second Amendment excuses that routinely thwart efforts to restrict the spread of high-capacity weapons, and the ability to respond to an obvious public threat can seem beyond addressing. It’s not.
All our constitutional rights have limits; the challenge is identifying where they lie and then summoning the political will to write them into law.
Plainly, there is something to be concerned about. The internet and social media, in particular, are tremendous resources that have benefited billions of people, but they are also enablers of human trafficking, facilitators of exploitation and purveyors of hatred.
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They are, in a word, neutral – unconcerned, at root, with ideas of right and wrong. Like language, itself, they can be forces of light or darkness, depending on the intentions of their users.
That, in its extremes, is what social media companies need to come to terms with in the aftermath of the May 14 shooting in Buffalo and similar crimes. If they don’t, governments must. In Albany, that work is already underway.
Only days after the tragedy, Gov. Kathy Hochul asked Attorney General Letitia James to “investigate the online platforms used to broadcast and amplify the acts and intentions” of the suspect. Among those James announced she would investigate are Twitch, 4chan, 8chan and Discord. Twitch is owned by Amazon.
In traditional private sector media, owners are responsible for what goes out – in print, on the air or over the internet. It’s called editing, an essential intervening step between writing and publishing. But with social media, there are no intermediaries. The writers are the editors and, with the permission of the platform’s owner, they are also the ones to click the button to publish. The only recourse for error – or horror – is after the fact.
Thus, the shooter in Buffalo had no trouble posting a hateful screed about Blacks and Jews and could easily attach a camera to his helmet and livestream his killing spree. Indeed, he knew it was possible, based on the livestreamed murders of 51 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, three years ago. That attack, he said, what an inspiration to him.
Plainly, the existing patterns and practices of social media could make tougher standards difficult to implement, but maybe something in its current configuration needs to change. One way to influence that change is to rethink part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
Section 230 of that law shields internet companies from liability for users’ postings, granting them legal protection for good faith efforts to remove in appropriate content. That may have been workable in 1996, but needs to be reviewed, at least as it applies to social media platforms.
The Constitution allows room for reasonable regulation. The Constitution protects free speech, for example, but it famously excludes the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. It protects freedom of the press, but doesn’t permit the publication of child pornography. It enshrines freedom of religion, but not if it violates other laws. Slander and libel can both cost their practitioners, regardless of constitutional guarantees. limits exist. It would be odd – and irresponsible – if social media were exempted from them, especially given the demonstrably heightened risk they pose.
The same concept, as we noted in a recent editorial, applies to firearms. So one concluded of the Supreme Court’s most conservative recent members, the late Antonin Scalia in a 2008 ruling.
It’s a reflection of the difficulties involved to observe that, while Twitch claims to have taken down video of the Buffalo attack within two minutes, it was still enough time for it to be shared over other social media platforms. It was quickly seen more than 3 million times. Hochul said the stream should have been taken down faster. It should certainly be the goal.
In the meantime, social media owners such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos are billionaires many times over. No one need reason them their success. What they can do is to demand there are better controls and accountability.
Americans like to think of themselves as problem solvers. Social media has shown itself to be a problem. So is mass murder. We can’t continue to simply throw up our hands.
Conservatives and liberals both should be able to acknowledge that obvious truth. But they need to do something about it. Looking away can no longer be an option.
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