Greg Gillette discusses the damaging effects of uncensored social media content. He also makes the case for these channels to take a more active and responsible editorial approach to the content being published through their sites.
Social Media has helped an unprecedented wave of distorted viewpoints spread over the last two decades since the apogee of global neoliberalism waned (F’s in the chat for Fukuyama).
From anti-vax, to flat earth, to eugenics, disproven and dangerous ideas that history had left in the dustbin have returned with a vengeance on platforms that do not hamper their ability to propagate. What this says about the average consumer of information is neither here nor there, but in the old world of editorialised media, the responsibility to back-up what was published prevented untruths getting through with some, sometimes very small, success.
This is one important element of the background of the US President’s current disagreement with social media platform Twitter. After Twitter appended contextual information about voter fraud's lack of prevalence and association with mail-in voting, the President threatened to remove US legal protections from Social Media platforms. More recently, Twitter put a view warning, used for graphic and violent content on the president’s tweet. Twitter blocked default viewing of the tweet so a user had to actively choose to read the content.
A few important background points now on what happened:
- Many, many more of the president’s tweets have been published on Twitter before, between, and after these content moderation steps were taken by the platform that have not been moderated at all. There is extreme selectivity in Twitter’s moderation of the President’s content. Also, there is no US legal provision guaranteeing anyone, even the president, unlimited access or control of a communications channel (and thankfully so). As they say, you have a right to free speech, but nobody has an obligation to publish you, and nobody has an obligation to listen.
- No content was censored. Contextual information required to properly understand what the President was saying about mail-in voting was appended to his Tweet, and another Tweet was subject to a user having to click on the tweet to see it. Neither of these steps remotely approaches censorship or content removal. Even if they did, content removal is normal, and welcome practise for Twitter, as discussed below.
- The second tweet that was click-screened for inciting violence, quoted a call for lynchings by a known racist police chief from the period the US was fighting for civil rights for African Americans. The phrase was in that era an open call for lynchings on African Americans by an openly racist authority. This in mind, the Tweet references horrendous, state-sanctioned racial violence. Twitter rightly flagged this as in breach of its community standards. Normally this would be removed from the platform, but as Twitter made clear, they were leaving it up because of who was saying it.
The rest of the important context requires reading up on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. I will leave that to The Verge who has published a great explainer on the topic.
With some of that large, and complicated background established, we can come back to a few of the important issues at hand. These include:
- what makes Twitter unique in social media,
- the “arbiter of truth” straw man,
- platform vs. publisher
- editorial responsibility.
This will be whistle-stop and not go too in-depth on any, but the main point is public discourse, civic life, objective truth, and public health have all suffered by unregulated content having more reach than regulated content (see Plato for more on this).
The first thing to say is Twitter is the most public of all social media channels, and also where many people represent themselves. This differs from Reddit where everything is public, but pseudonyms are the norm, and Facebook, where real names are even more common than Twitter, but by default all personal content is private. As a side note, in digital marketing research this makes Twitter invaluable, it is the primary research channel for the industry because people are relatively honest, themselves, and speaking publicly for all to listen.
You might then suggest Twitter is a “forum” and should not regulate what is published. To some extent, this is actually how it really is. You might not be aware but versus Facebook, Twitter is absolutely awash in pornography. Brands with names easily related to anything remotely to do with porn categories or sex acts have to be extremely careful in collecting Twitter data to clean it for explicit content. And yet Twitter still does a massive job in trying to clean things up.
This fact that there is tons of explicit content on Twitter is often used to say Twitter, especially, versus say Facebook, is a “forum” and stands by and lets everyone speak their mind on a virtual speakers corner. But this is not the case. Twitter is just more Amsterdam to Facebook’s Japan when it comes to regulating pornography. Twitter is actively deciding as a moderator to allow porn. It does not allow child porn, gore, or other extreme and dangerous content sexual or not. It also regularly prevents content inciting violence and openly racist content from propagating. White supremacist groups have to behave themselves and use coded language often, reserving their true feelings for other platforms.
This is where we come to Donald Trump. What Trump published was openly racist, and calling for violence. The thing that people are letting slip in this conversation, is Twitter adding a warning to this type of content is not new, just that applying it to the president is new.
Arbiter of Truth
Who decides what is a fact, and how do they do it? If we are in a first-year philosophy class, we would proceed to cycle through each major philosopher from history and try to recite their divergent opinions on the matter of the nature of reality. But this is not that. As I have written about elsewhere on this blog, modern society requires the ability to find objective consensus.
Ignoring the philosophical rabbit hole that subjectivity may reign supreme, social norms combined with science, and fora of discourse and politics, to allow us to distil the random chaos of the universe into facts that we can question, but nonetheless agree on until they are disproven.
If we can’t accept that scientific, academic, and journalistic practices can help us filter fact from spurious falsehood there is no point trying. So we do accept them as the best way to sort good from bad ideas. While some may claim that academia, science, and journalism all have a particular political bias, one needs to wonder if it’s really just facts that have a political bias.
But I digress. This is at the crux of the President’s Executive Order to ask an arms-length regulatory agency to start a process to make recommendations to a legislature about how to consider proposing reform measures on a law that need to be vetted by a second legislative house and interpreted by a judicial branch. This is effectively what the Executive Order asks for by the way.
The EO misinterprets Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act by claiming it distinguishes organisations that choose to become arbiters of truth and those that do not. As the Verge, and many others clarify, Section 230 does not do this but actually does afford platforms the ability to moderate content, and not even just with respect to protecting society from blatantly criminal content.
The argument from Trump supporters comes down to: Twitter is politically motivated and trying to redefine facts in a dystopian way by exploiting their power as a vehicle for information. Why should Twitter get to decide what is a fact? The only reason they are not liable like News Channels are for what they publish is that they do not have an opinion on reality.
As we’ve made clear, this was never the purpose of Section 230, nor is it what Twitter is doing, so we are now dealing with whether it is a problem even if Twitter did decide to be an arbiter of fact. There is obviously a spectrum at play where the answer is yes and no depending on the degree. We are currently at one end of that spectrum where Twitter plays almost no role in fact-checking opinion, even where that opinion claims to be fact. Twitter has been roundly criticised for propagating blatantly dangerous ideas about vaccines, and non-existent child sex rings in pizza parlours (though that was primarily on Facebook) leading to violent break-ins of said innocent pizza parlour.
All that to say, there is good reason to believe there is nothing wrong with platforms or publishers as the case may be, helping to stifle dangerous untruths from propagating, by at a minimum providing untruths alongside the context of established fact, if not wholesale preventing their spread. This brings us to:
We used to have Media organisations responsible for fact-checking information, and oversight and editorial practises in place to make sure they were doing so responsibly. A shift in communications reach moving to un-moderated social media channels has resulted in a chaotic crisis of objectivity. The societal outcomes have been abjectly negative and these microscopic steps by Twitter to separate fact and fiction in the ambiguous ether of information are welcome.
The lack of such responsibility has spread nonsense from the relatively harmless essential oil and MLM products (though MLMs cause a great deal of harm overall) being able to lie about their effectiveness, to calls for racially-motivated violence. They have enabled conservative activists in the UK to blame recent spikes in crime on minorities and immigrants, instead of on the Tories who removed the social supports and police funding that protected us. Cambridge Analytica was able to exploit not just targeting and audience algorithms, but a fundamental principle that anyone can say anything is true and have the same right to access as many people as are willing to share and present to hear that message.
This is why the entirety of the platform vs. editor debate is misguided: there are no platforms that are not also editors. It is a choice, and an understandable one at that, to not want to have to moderate reality, but when the decision to shirk responsibility to do so leads to such a spread of disinformation with such obviously negative social impacts, that inaction becomes negligence.
So why is the President mad and trying to threaten Twitter with legislation that he is himself unable to create? Traditional media has an obligation to do some amount of due diligence before reporting that facts are indeed true, OR declare when a statement is an opinion and not verified. The President is unable to say much of what he would like to on those traditional channels because his statements would not hold up against research and due diligence, and he is unwilling to admit they are opinions.
Until now, he has had a loophole with “platforms” that do not moderate content (though as we’ve made clear they in fact always have), which allow him to claim anything is true. This same loophole has benefitted flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, 9-11 conspiracists, eugenicists, snake oil salesmen, and literal nazis as well. The irony of his threat is that it fundamentally would re-classify social media channels into the same category as traditional news media, meaning they would be forced much more widely to take an editorial stance on the content on their platforms. This would make spurious arguments much less prevalent, and would probably be a good thing in the end for public discourse.
The grounding for the threat, or a game of chicken the President is playing with Twitter, is that it would ruin the platform by either so greatly reducing its appeal so that it would no longer be more attractive to advertisers than any other website, or that it would be liable for so much third party content on it that it could be sued out of existence. Neither of these is actually terribly likely, and Twitter obviously knows that. That is why when the President Threatened an EO, Twitter just continued on contextualising his content.
Twitter, Facebook, and the other social channels have had their cake and eaten it for the last 10+ years. They have both exerted editorial policy over what appears on their channels but also been relaxed enough in that policy to claim they have not. As a result, information has flowed through unmoderated channels, and the quality of that information has deteriorated before it reaches a mass audience. This has damaged civil society, public health, and political discourse. More editorial responsibility from social media channels would be a welcome change, and the President of the US is a good place to start.
This editorial piece was written by Gregory Gillette, Communications Secretary of the Young Fabians Finance and Economics committee.
He tweets @gregorygillette