Oh, to be a digital overlord, a master of the social media universe, occupying an office at Twitter, or Facebook, or Google. The money just keeps rolling in. You get to decide what to publish or not with impunity. You’re the owner of a monopoly so big even governments cower at the thought of offending you.
While President Trump’s current vow to clamp down on the social media giants by means of executive order is sound and fury signifying next to nothing, his outrage is well-placed. The companies do play favorites. Some speech is suppressed; some speech is permitted. Who makes these decisions and for what reasons?
These private lords of the digital space don’t have to tell us. They are, after all, private companies. They can ban folks for any reason at all.
There’s more than a little offensive about that.
The business model of these tech giants is clear enough now, thanks to the work of authors such as Jared Lanier and Shosana Zuboff. We are given free access to platforms where we can post idle thoughts, photos and the like. The companies offering this service harvest data about us from each random click. This data is aggregated and sold to others. The result is a form of surveillance capitalism where surplus information is siphoned off and used to created bigger, better and more accurate means of forecasting, and controlling, behavior.
Folks were on the cusp of outrage about it all before the recent pandemic. Think Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and the 2016 election. You begin to understand why Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg spends an estimated $23 million on personal security each year. There’s something sinister about the manipulative machinery he spawned.
But it’s profitable, wildly so, and, what’s more, it’s a sort of fantasyland where social media giants are granted immunity from suit for the things they publish. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, social media owners can’t be sued for defamation when they publish the outrageous nonsense of their users.
And if a social media company decides it doesn’t like someone’s speech, they are free to delete the speech. Alex Jones, host and founder of Infowars, and a client of mine, is banned from Facebook, Twitter, Google and others. Why? He violates the company’s community standards policies.
I’ll never understand why the government grants immunity to social media companies for the things the company’s do publish but extracts no commitment to from these entities to adhere to first amendment standards of what can and cannot be banned.
There’s no question Donald Trump plays fast and loose with the truth in his Tweets. I don’t read them because I don’t trust them. But I’d rather have the right to pick and choose for myself what to read than have some social justice warrior at a desk in California flag speech as offensive, and, therefore, prohibited.
The tech giants enjoyed a brief reprieve from suspicion and hostility as the pandemic broke. We were hungry for connection and information. What’s a little privacy in exchange for the illusions of connection and security?
Facebook chose the pandemic period to unveil its new appeals court, a private court that will hear appeals of decisions to ban a speaker or speech. On the board sits a retired federal judge, a former prime minister of Denmark, professors and activists from around the world. It’s an impressive collection of people, but to whom are they accountable? No one. They make their own law, their own rules, and are not subject to the checks and balances of a governmental entity. It’s a fake court, free to make fake law, to suit an agenda set by the company that picked them to serve.
I don’t want the speech I can utter or see regulated by a bunch of officious intermeddlers selected to police the permissible. The very notion is offensive.
One can, as I did in January 2019, withdraw from social media. But that comes at a cost of access to information about the world, friends and colleagues. During the pandemic, I restarted Twitter and Facebook. I’m not yet sure whether I regret the decision.
The better course is to change the law. If Facebook, Twitter and others want immunity from suit for what they publish then they must be made to justify what they do not publish by publicly accepted standards as set forth in the First Amendment. They should be prohibited from banning, or abridging, speech simply because their owners, or their algorithms, don’t like the speech.
We bitched and moaned plenty that the Russians somehow influenced the 2016 election by manipulating social media. I’m not prepared to let the tech giants manipulate the 2020 election by deciding who and what I can read.
Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg – who the hell are they?
Trump’s efforts to slap at the tech giants by administrative order is likely a nullity. But it calls attention to a real problem – the tech giants behave like governments, but refuse accountability. It’s time to put an end to that charade.