After years of pressure, Big Tech companies are now becoming a lot more proactive about removing and policing content—but no one’s happy. Both conservatives and liberals have misgivings about what is getting removed, leading to calls for outside watchdogs to step in. (The Economist)
NH: When Facebook and Twitter first launched, they promised to be the new public square. Anyone could post anything they wanted. But after incidents of live-streamed violence, incendiary invective, manipulative trolling, and concerns about fake news, social media started taking a bigger role in regulating their content.
Big Tech is removing more social media posts than ever before. Last quarter, YouTube removed over 2 billion comments. That’s 12 times more than what they removed in the second quarter of 2018. Similarly, Facebook removed 9.6 million posts for hate speech violations between January and March 2020.
That’s up from the 5.7 million posts they removed in the previous three months. And Twitter has made headlines for its active moderation of the president, whose many tweets about the election have been flagged as misleading. On November 4 alone, 6 of his tweets were flagged.
Until recently, big social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have resisted pressure to moderate their content. Protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 from liability for the content they host (except for messages linked to explicitly illegal activities--e.g., copyright violations and sex trafficking), these firms generally chose to be pretty laissez-faire: The more, the merrier.
What changed their minds? Mostly, the rising temper of user messages on politically and culturally sensitive topics together with the deliberate planting of false yet inflammatory information to trigger viral crowd reactions.
All this is happening just as America is experiencing an extraordinary polarization, blue zone v red zone, in ideological outlook. Social media czars are helped in this effort by new advances in AI, which enables their algorithms to filter and identify mass amounts of content quickly.
Users wonder how these algorithms work. But again, using Section 230 as a cover, Big Tech is not required to justify or explain how they suppress or "flag" unsuitable content.
While three-quarters of Americans agree that social media sites are "likely" or "very likely" to censor political viewpoints they find objectionable, Republicans are clearly a lot more certain that censorship is going on than Democrats.
What's more, most Democrats apparently approve of such censorship if its purpose is to remove "inaccurate or misleading" posts. Roughly half of Democrats say they have at least "a fair amount" of confidence in the media companies doing the censoring. Very few Republicans have such confidence.
As the biggest social media sites become ever more dominant in how Americans receive and react to news, this debate of censorship grew into a major political issue during the recent presidential campaign.
Conservatives accuse Big Tech of partisan censorship. Many believe Silicon Valley elites are targeting conservative speech to help the Democratic Party. They were aghast when Twitter banned the sharing of a negative article about Hunter Biden by the New York Post. And they have been even more outraged whenever Trump’s personal posts are removed.
Republican leaders--including President Trump and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley--have loudly championed regulatory or legislative reforms that would narrow the Section 230 exemption and somehow compel Big Tech to impose "fairness" on its filters. (See "Conservatives Turn on Big Tech.")
Liberals are less concerned overall. And when they do speak up, it's more often about Big Tech's behavior abroad than about what it's doing here at home. Human rights activists often to complain about the silencing of whistleblowers (like YouTube's recent removal of a Syrian video that showed possible war crimes) or the empowering of populist strongmen around the world (like the military junto in Myanmar) to whip up deadly violence against ethnic minorities. For most Democrats, however, regulating fairness of domestic content is hardly a top policy priority.
How is this issue likely to play out?
The Republicans face two challenges. One is political. They no longer control the White House and therefore no longer direct the policy agenda. The other is philosophical. Traditional Republicans have argued so long in favor of competition over regulation that it won't be easy for them to get excited about something like a "public neutrality oversight board." If you're a free-market conservative, you don't turn to government.
You switch to a competitor. Indeed, many conservative celebrities are now urging their followers to flee the Big Tech sites in favor of new lesser-known app-platforms like Parler, WeMe, Rumble, and NewsMax.
IMO, these efforts won't be successful. That's because people with strong opinions want to be heard on sites with massive numbers of mainstream viewers. There's no point in skewering socialists or lampooning drive-by media in a place where everyone agrees with you. What's more, in the absence of standards, bad behavior will chase out good in a sort of gresham's law of communication. A social tipping dynamic ultimately leads to the dark and conspiratorial raging of 4chan. We all might have fun living like anarchists, but only if we could do so in a respectable neighborhood.
A more constructive outcome would be for Republicans and Democrats to recognize that they have broad and overlapping policy interests.
Yes, the Republicans are the most fired up about creating transparent and impartial content standards for Big Tech media--a sort of "fairness doctrine" for the 21st century. Yet even if Democrats are not as motivated, most would be willing to go along with this idea in principle. Democrats, on the other hand, are the most fired up about reinvigorating antitrust policies to reign in Big Tech's pricing power abuses. But here again, the interest is bipartisan: Republicans (led by Senator Josh Hawley himself) have also grown surprisingly vocal in their criticism of Big Tech monopolies. (See "Google-Facebook: It's Not Over" and "Antitrust Threats Against Apple Heating Up.")
So a potential deal is possible, namely, a new regulatory structure for Big Tech that gives both sides something that each side really wants. Even social media gets something out of the deal. Sure, Big Tech won't like any of new antitrust regs, since these would (necessarily) have a direct impact on its bottom line.
Even so, Big Tech would be happy to be relieved of its current censorship burden, a job which necessarily makes it the lightning rod of every act of commission or omission. If the public wants standards, let the public choose them. The indirect benefits to this sector's institutional legitimacy could be substantial.
I know. Some readers may attack me for capitulating to the Borg. They will say I'm undermining competition, stifling media innovation, and defending group think.
But I say: Without antitrust enforcement, competition has already disappeared. Innovation that entrenches market power does not serve the public. And as for group think, most Americans, both liberal and conservative, are profoundly unsatisfied by the standardless status quo in which so many of us either hold our ears, press our mute button, return to our rabbit holes, or just avoid discussion.
All content, even the most offensive, must of course continue to be constitutionally protected. But let's be honest: A mainstream public square in which most citizens feel they can safely participate is a national treasure. From 1949 to 1987, the (pre-Internet) federal government did require major media outlets to conform to something called the "Fairness Doctrine."
That was an era, I think it's fair to say in retrospect, in which Americans did a pretty good job both voicing diverse opinions while also forging a workable consensus around important national goals. That sounds so easy--but right now it sounds oh so far away.
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ABOUT NEIL HOWE
Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.
A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.
Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."
Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.
Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.
Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.