Tag Archives: twitter

Information Silos And The First Amendment

The First Amendment contemplates and protects a “marketplace of ideas.” We have no precedent for an information environment in which there is no marketplace–no “agora” where different ideas and perspectives contend with each other for acceptance.

What we have instead are information “silos”–a column in the New York Times recently quoted Robert Post, a Yale professor, for the observation that people have always been crazy, but the internet has allowed them to find each other.

In those silos, they talk only to each other.

Social media has enabled the widespread and instantaneous transmission of lies in the service of political gain, and we are seeing the results. The question is: what should we do?

One set of scholars has concluded that the damage being done by misinformation and propaganda outweighs the damage of censorship. Rick Hasen, perhaps the most pre-eminent scholar of election law, falls into that category:

Change is urgent to deal with election pathologies caused by the cheap speech era, but even legal changes as tame as updating disclosure laws to apply to online political ads could face new hostility from a Supreme Court taking a libertarian marketplace-of-ideas approach to the First Amendment. As I explain, we are experiencing a market failure when it comes to reliable information voters need to make informed choices and to have confidence in the integrity of our electoral system. But the Court may stand in the way of necessary reform.

I don’t know what Hasen considers “necessary reform,” but I’m skeptical.

I have always been a First Amendment purist, and I still agree with the balance struck by the Founders, who understood that–as pernicious and damaging as bad ideas can be–allowing government to determine which ideas get voiced is likely to be much more dangerous. (As a former ACLU colleague memorably put it, “Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.”)

That said, social media platforms aren’t government. Like brick-and-mortar private businesses, they can insist on certain behaviors by their customers. And like other private businesses, they can and should be regulated in the public interest. (At the very least, they should be required to apply their own rules consistently. People expressing concern/outrage over Twitter’s ban of Trump should be reminded that he would have encountered that ban much earlier had he been an ordinary user. Trump had flouted Twitter and Facebook rules for years.)

The Times column suggests we might learn from European approaches to issues of speech, including falsehoods and hate speech. Hate speech can only be banned in the U.S. if it is intended to incite imminent violence and is actually likely to do so. Europeans have decided that hate speech isn’t valuable public discourse– that racism isn’t an idea; it’s a form of discrimination.

The underlying philosophical difference here is about the right of the individual to self-expression. Americans value that classic liberal right very highly — so highly that we tolerate speech that might make others less equal. Europeans value the democratic collective and the capacity of all citizens to participate fully in it — so much that they are willing to limit individual rights.

The First Amendment was crafted for a political speech environment that was markedly different than today’s, as Tim Wu has argued.  Government censorship was then the greatest threat to free speech. Today, those, including Trump, “who seek to control speech use new methods that rely on the weaponization of speech itself, such as the deployment of ‘troll armies,’ the fabrication of news, or ‘flooding’ tactics” that humiliate, harass, discourage, and even destroy targeted speakers.”

Wu argues that Americans can no longer assume that the First Amendment is an adequate guarantee against malicious speech control and censorship. He points out that the marketplace of ideas has become corrupted by technologies “that facilitate the transmission of false information.”

American courts have long held that the best test of truth is the power of an idea to get itself accepted in the competition that characterizes a marketplace. They haven’t addressed what happens when there is no longer a functioning market–when citizens  confine their communicative interactions to sites that depend for their profitability on confirming the biases of carefully targeted populations.

I certainly don’t think the answer is to dispense with–or water down– the First Amendment. But that Amendment was an effort to keep those with power from controlling information. In today’s information environment, platforms like Twitter, Facebook, etc. are as powerful and influential as government. Our challenge is to somehow rein in intentional propaganda and misinformation without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Any ideas how we do that?

 

 

Facebook And False Equivalence

Is it just me, or do the months between now and November seem interminable?

In the run-up to what will be an existentially-important decision for America’s future, we are living through an inconsistent, contested and politicized quarantine, mammoth protests triggered by a series of racist police murders of unarmed black men, and their   cynical escalation into riots by advocates of race war, and daily displays of worsening insanity from the White House–including, but certainly not limited to, America’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic followed by a phone call in which our “eloquent” President called governors “weak” and “jerks” for not waging war on their own citizens.

And in the midst of it all, a pissing match between the Psychopath-in-Chief and Twitter, which has finally–belately–decided to label some of Trump’s incendiary and inaccurate tweets for what they are.

We can only hope this glimmer of responsibility from Twitter continues. The platform’s unwillingness to apply the same rules to Trump that they apply to other users hasn’t just been cowardly–it has given his constant lies a surface plausibility and normalized his bile. We should all applaud Twitter’s belated recognition of its responsibility.

Then, of course, there’s Facebook.

It isn’t that Mark Zuckerberg is unaware of the harms being caused by Facebooks current algorithms. Numerous media outlets have reported on the company’s internal investigations into the way those algorithms encourage division and distort political debate. In her column last Sunday’s New York Times, Maureen Dowd reported

The Wall Street Journal had a chilling report a few days ago that Facebook’s own research in 2018 revealed that “our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness. If left unchecked,” Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.”

Mark Zuckerberg shelved the research.

The reasons are both depressing and ironic: in addition to concerns that less vitriol might mean users spending less time on the site, Zuckerberg understands that reducing the spread of untrue, divisive content would require eliminating substantially more material from the right than the left, opening the company to accusations of bias against conservatives.

Similar fears are said to be behind Facebook’s unwillingness to police political speech in advertisements and posts.

Think about it: Facebook knows that its platform is enormously influential. It know that the Right trades in conspiracy theories and intentional misinformation to a much greater extent than the Left, skewing the information landscape in dangerous ways. But for whatever reason– in order to insulate the company from regulation, or to curry favor with wealthy investors, or to escape the anger of the Breitbarts and Limbaughs–not to mention Trump–it has chosen to “allow people to make their own decisions.”

The ubiquity of social media presents lawmakers with significant challenges. Despite all the blather from the White House and the uninformed hysteria of ideologues, the issue isn’t censorship or freedom of speech–as anyone who has taken elementary civics knows, the Bill of Rights prohibits government from censoring communication. Facebook and Twitter and other social media sites aren’t government. For that matter, under current law, they aren’t even considered “publishers” who could be held accountable for whatever inaccurate drivel a user posts.

That means social media companies have the right to dictate their own terms of use. There is no legal impediment to Facebook or Twitter “censoring” posts they consider vile, obscene or untrue. (Granted, there are significant practical and marketing concerns involved in such an effort.) On Monday, reports emerged that Facebook’s own employees–including several in management–are clamoring for the platform to emulate Twitter’s new approach.

There have always been cranks and liars, racists and political propagandists. There haven’t always been easily accessible, worldwide platforms through which they could connect with similarly twisted individuals and spread their poisons. One of the many challenges of our technological age is devising constitutionally-appropriate ways to regulate those platforms.

If Mark Zuckerberg is unwilling to make FaceBook at least a minimally-responsible overseer of our national conversation–if he and his board cannot make and enforce reasonable rules about veracity in posts, a future government will undoubtedly do it for them–something that could set a dangerous precedent.

Refusing to be responsible– supporting a false equivalency that is tearing the country apart– is a much riskier strategy than Zuckerberg seems to recognize.

On the other hand, it finally seems to be dawning on Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, that (as Dowd put it in her column)”Trump and Twitter were a match made in hell.”

 

Weaponizing Social Media

The already ample commentary directed at our “Tweeter-in-Chief” grew more copious–and pointed–in the wake of Trump’s “Morning Joe” attacks and the bizarre visual of him “body slamming” CNN.

John Cassidy’s essay in the New Yorker was consistent with the general tenor of those reactions, especially his conclusion:

Where America, until recently, had at its helm a Commander-in-Chief whom other countries acknowledged as a global leader and a figure of stature even if they didn’t like his policies, it now has something very different: an oafish Troll-in-Chief who sullies his office daily.

Most of the Cassidy piece focused on Trump’s addiction to–and childish use of–Twitter, and it is hard to disagree with his observation that the content of these messages is “just not normal behavior.” Thoughtful people, those not given to hyperbole or ad hominem attacks, are increasingly questioning Trump’s mental health.

The paragraph that struck me, however, was this one, because it raises an issue larger than the disaster in the White House:

Trump’s online presence isn’t something incidental to his Presidency: it is central to it, and always has been. If the media world were still dominated by the major broadcast networks and a handful of big newspapers, Trump would most likely still be hawking expensive apartments, building golf courses, and playing himself in a reality-television series. It was the rise of social media, together with the proliferation of alternative right-wing news sites, that enabled Trump to build a movement of angry, alienated voters and, ultimately, go from carnival barker to President.

Unpack, for a moment, the observation that social media and alternative “news” made Trump possible.

John Oliver recently aired a worrisome segment about Sinclair Broadcasting, a “beneath the radar” behemoth which is on the verge of a $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media. That merger would significantly consolidate ownership of local television outlets, including one in Indianapolis. Oliver showed clips demonstrating Sinclair’s extreme right-wing bias–bias that, as Oliver pointed out– is in the same category as Fox News and Breitbart.

It’s damaging enough when radio talk shows, television networks and internet sites peddle falsehoods and conspiracy theories. What truly “weaponizes” disinformation and propaganda, however, is social media, where Facebook “friends” and twitter followers endlessly repeat even the most obvious fantasies; as research has shown, that repetition can make even people who are generally rational believe very irrational things.

When NASA has to issue an official denial that it is operating a child slave colony on Mars, we’re in unprecedented times.

I don’t have research to confirm or rebut my theory, but I believe that Americans’ loss of trust in our government–in our institutions and those elected and/or appointed to manage them–has made many people receptive to “alternative” explanations for decisions they may not like or understand. It couldn’t be that the people making that decision or crafting that legislation simply see the situation differently. It couldn’t be that public servant A is simply wrong; or that those making decision B had access to information we don’t have. No–they must be getting paid off. They must be working with other enemies of righteousness in a scheme to [fill in the blank].

No wonder it is so difficult to get good people to run for public office. In addition to good faith disagreements about their performance, they are likely to be accused of corrupt motives.

The other day, I struck up a discussion with a perfectly nice woman–a former schoolteacher. The talk turned to IPS, and she was complimentary about the schools with which she was familiar. She was less complimentary about the district’s charter schools–a position I understand. (It’s a mixed bag. Some are excellent, some aren’t, and they certainly aren’t a panacea for what ails education.)

All perfectly reasonable.

Then she confided to me that the Superintendent “gets a bonus” for every contract he signs with a Charter school. In other words, it’s all about the money. It couldn’t be that the school board and superintendent want the best for the children in the district and–right or wrong– simply see things differently.

Our daughter is on that school board, and I know for a fact that the Superintendent does NOT get bonuses for contracting with charter schools.  When I shared this exchange with our daughter, she regaled me with a number of other appalling, disheartening accusations that have grown and festered on social media.

I don’t have a remedy for our age of conspiracy. Censorship is clearly not an answer. (In the long run,  education can help.) But if we don’t devise a strategy for countering radio and television propaganda and the fever swamps of social media–the instruments that gave us Trump–we’ll be in an increasingly dangerous world of hurt.

 

Engage!

There’s no dearth of discussion about the effect of social media on culture and politics. Facebook and Twitter, especially, are credited (if that’s the word) with facilitating everything from the Arab Spring to the surprise victory of Glenda Ritz here in Indiana. Political observers tell us that sophisticated use of social media was a major factor in Obama’s successful GOTV effort, and that bungled use of that same media hampered that of the Romney campaign.

During a discussion about the Media and Policy class we’ve been team teaching this semester, John Mutz wondered aloud whether these forms of communication might be destabilizing government, making it much more difficult to engage in the sort of negotiation and deliberation that democratic theory prizes.  I think he’s right, and I think this is an unfortunate and under-appreciated consequence of our current, frenetic media environment.

It’s not just the speed with which information, innuendo, rumor and half-backed conspiracy theories circle the globe. It’s the partial nature of that information.

The goal of democratic societies is informed participation. Not just voting, not just agitating for this or that change, but thoughtful engagement in self-government. Today’s communication technologies facilitate immediate engagement: Sign the petition to XYZ, telling them to vote for ABC! Join the protest against so-and-so! Don’t let ‘them’ change this program–it’s all that protects grandmas and kittens! We are given tools with which to send a message, but all too often, the message is not based upon a full explanation of the issues involved.

I know there have been several instances where I’ve gotten such a “call to action” that initially seemed appropriate to me, but upon further research into the policies involved, turned out to be promoting a result that was neither practical nor possible. (The federal budget really isn’t like our household budgets–it’s a lot more complicated. Sometimes, well-intentioned programs that are meant to help one population or another have negative unintended consequences that really do need to be addressed. It’s usually more complicated than that email blast would suggest.)

Despite their considerable merits, Facebook and Twitter and all the other methods of rapid communication at our disposal too often get us to fire before we aim.

It’s important to be engaged. It’s important to communicate quickly with our elected representatives when we think they are about to act in ways that will damage important institutions, or harm vulnerable constituencies. Social media allows involved citizens to mobilize others, and to have a much louder and more effective voice than was previously possible. The downside is that the folks most likely to be involved are the partisans, both left and right, who tend to be more ideological than informed.

It’s so easy to click that link and sign your name. Who has time to read up on the arguments, pro and con?

As Captain Picard might say, “Engage!”