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Twitter and Facebook (and other social media sites) recently became the focus of a lot of attention for the role they did or did not play in allowing the spread of information (or disinformation) regarding alleged rigging of the election in the USA and the Capitol riots. It seems that a conversation about the censure rights of big companies was getting started. I have two questions about this.

  1. It seemed both Republicans and Democrats were in agreement that the social media companies had too much power (especially when Trump was removed from Twitter). Is this true? How do their views differ?

  2. Is anything being done about this, or has it simply faded from everyone's attention?

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    That agreement is superficial. Both Republicans and Democrats agree that 47 U.S. Code Section 230 is flawed. Republicans tend to think it is flawed because they see far too much moderation, while Democrats tend to think it is flawed because they see far too little moderation. – David Hammen Feb 7 at 16:21
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    Downvoted due to claim of rigged election. Let's be clear that what was spread was DISINFORMATION about the election being rigged. – jamesqf Feb 7 at 17:37
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    @jamesqf edited. – Burt Feb 7 at 17:47
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    Related, but from a more international angle: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/61781/… – Hulk Feb 8 at 15:19
  • Social media had too much power? what abut the ISP's? why not censor user from posting anything offensive at all by regulating their internet? – montelof Feb 8 at 15:56
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Honestly I think some of what you heard was posturing from people who were upset that social media was moderating their content or the content of people that they supported. Evidence of this would be the drive to remove section 230 of the communications decency act that shields social media platforms from the content that the users publish.

https://www.eff.org/issues/cda230

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider

The thing that is important to know about this is currently there is no punishment of the platform based on what the users publish to that platform. However if section 230 was repealed that would mean platforms themselves could be targeted due to content that is placed on it by the users. If this was the case those platforms would have many reasons to be even more heavy handed with moderation due to fears of financial or legal complications with that said content. This would cause more content to be moderated and complaints of censorship to be even more prevalent.

As a side note it could cause even bigger problems as seen in the parlor/aws hosting situation. The question is if you can go after the social media platform for what the users post is it not also possible to go after the host of that platform? If a social media platform is not moderating content could it not be argued that the host of that social media platform could be held in the same light as the platform and its users?

This is not to say that how social media moderates content isn't something that needs to be investigated and fixed.

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    I think a lot of the call to repeal 230 is similar to the calls to defund the police. It's a succinct slogan, and probably a lot of minimally-informed people don't realize 230 helps them too. I have also heard the argument that since conservatives face the brunt of moderation, it would be tactically wise to repeal 230. If they can't use the internet to spread their message, denying it from their opposition is the next best thing. – Ryan_L Feb 7 at 17:07
  • @Ryan_L: That would be shortsighted in the extreme. The right wing media ecosystem is dependent on social media echo chambers for its continued survival. Do they think they can just drop Alex Jones on Fox News and expect all the cable companies to keep carrying it? – Kevin Feb 10 at 2:45
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    @Kevin I think the idea is not that their message will be spread more, but that people like AOC will not be able to spread theirs. – Ryan_L Feb 10 at 2:56
  • @Ryan_L: Thanks to asymmetric polarization, I think that hurts the (far) right more than it hurts the (far) left, but it is somewhat subjective. – Kevin Feb 10 at 3:06
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I think if there is an area in which both Democrats and Republicans can agree on this issue, it is in that there are too few user-facing platforms for content dissemination (Facebook, Twitter and just a few others have huge market domination) due to the large barrier to entry for new platforms, creating a de facto monopoly. This creates issues when the views expressed by one side or the other fall outside of the content rules laid out by these platforms; in this case that side feels that their views are being censored. In reality, the right to free speech does not imply the right to widespread publication of that speech, but it is nonetheless a valid concern that the most commonly used platforms do have content rules that tend to clip more right-wing than left-wing talking points (or maybe you see it as the reverse, but the point stands either way). Many people would agree that having few companies that define these limits is probably worse than having a larger range of platforms, each with differing moderation rules, for content that is not explicitly illegal but is offensive, harmful or otherwise unsavory.

In regards to the second point, legislation on this issue is in a developing state at present but the House-drafted SAFE TECH Act does lay out reforms to CDA Section 230.

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    @jeffronicus Hosting the site, either with their own servers or by renting them, is expensive. If they own their own servers, they also need to figure out a great deal of cybersecurity issues like DDOS protection. Then there is the fact that all the cool people are already on another fully-functional site. Parler had this problem even before it got shut down; it didn't really offer anything unique that Twitter didn't, besides the ability to see what deplatformed people had to say. – Ryan_L Feb 7 at 18:43
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    @ryan_l I’d like to see some evidence that Twitter is primarily banning conservatives. Everything I’ve seen points to the opposite. For example, Facebook was doing the opposite, by deliberately promoting right-wing articles and news sources, while the YouTube algorithm (probably unintentionally) strongly favored right-wing conspiracy videos. – divibisan Feb 7 at 20:58
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    @divibisan Kathy Griffin can post a picture of her holding up Donald Trump's severed head, and all that happens to her is she is forced to delete it. Louis Farrakhan can say "I'm not anti-semite, I'm anti-termite." Meanwhile the rapper ZUBY got suspended for saying "Ok, dude" to a transgender person. As for facebook, Gizmodo back in 2016 broke the news that FB deliberately curated the news feed to push down conservative stories. gizmodo.com/… – Ryan_L Feb 7 at 21:13
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    I saw these platforms benefit from the right wing frenzy, I didn't see them censoring it at all. What they attempted to do toward the end of the election cycle is to filter unsubstantiated accusations and there is nothing wrong with that. Since it was pretty much exclusively a Republican thing, they have the feeling they were censored, but fantasy world statements apart, the Republican content was never censored. – Thomas Feb 8 at 0:34
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    @Ryan_L it seems unlikely that Facebook considers all mention of illegal immigration hate speech when they accepted over 2000 ads on the matter from Donald Trump alone in 2019. theguardian.com/us-news/2019/aug/05/… – Jontia Feb 8 at 14:40
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I'm going to offer a more cynical perspective, and I'm assuming that when you say Democrats and Republicans in your question you are referring to the politicians and not their constituents.

I think your question has a false premise: nobody in power actually cares about false information.

People who were censored care, and care plenty. People who care about free speech care. People in power do not care. Did they go after Fox? No. It took a civil action by a private company. Have they complained about Google? You know, the company that actually owns almost all of our information? That massages results at least as much as social media companies? No. Have the people crying "monopoly!" about Facebook and Twitter given a peep about Amazon? No.

For the politicians this is all for show, smoke and mirrors. It's a way to look like they care, to look like they're doing something, without actually doing anything.

I understand the argument about censorship and how you're either a platform or a content-provider and that you don't get to switch back and forth at will based on whatever is convenient at that moment. And that's a valid argument. And I also get that if you were on the wrong end of that legal/rhetorical sleight-of-hand it burns. But the whole context of this debate is that we're picking up pennies in front of steamrollers.

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  • Many "people who care about free speech" actually only care about their own speech and would happily censor other peoples' speech. – user253751 Feb 8 at 14:31
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    @user253751 that is true, but there really are people who care about free speech, full-stop. – Jared Smith Feb 8 at 14:50
  • @JaredSmith I'd disagree. I think that there are a lot of politicians (and more generally, most government bureaucrats who are doing the actual regulation) do want good faith negotiation and reform of content platforms. It's just a complex issue and there's not a clear right answer but that's not to say people aren't genuinely concerned with the outcome – DerekG Feb 15 at 18:51
  • @DerekG to wax dystopic about FB and Twitter but not mention Amazon or Google is either incredibly naive or disingenuous, and political fitness does not select for naivete. I'm not saying Amazon and Google are bad or that FB and Twitter are bad. I am saying that in a world of spectacle over substance where senators decide to focus their energy on NFL cheating scandals that I call shenanigans on complaining about the latter without mentioning the former. It's the bikeshed thing: they focus on less important problems that are easier to parse. – Jared Smith Feb 15 at 19:07
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    @JaredSmith Facebook and Twitter are user-facing platforms; Amazon and Google are somewhat closer to utilities than platforms, so the calculus is a bit different. Sure, the same issue of pseudo-monopolies are present in web indexing and cloud hosting domains, and I would say actors well-versed in the issue are equally aware of the issues of market domination in these fields. Let's not forget that both Amazon and Google were present at the "Big 5 Senate hearing" and face calls for antitrust action against them. – DerekG Feb 15 at 20:46
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Honestly, I think the best we can say here is summed up in the following bullet points:

  • Almost everyone in the political sphere agrees that social media organizations (and media organizations more generally) have too much power over public opinion formation, concentrated in too few hands. They disagree about the specific problems involved: Trumpists object to that power being used to quell their radicalization efforts; Progressives object that this power was not used (until very lately) to stem the onslaught of vicious, dehumanizing rhetoric that has been aimed at them for decades; moderates of both parties have concerns about the 'Wild West' public attitude that media companies' laissez-faire practices have fostered, and the general degradation of civic principles that has been the result. But no one with any political chops is unaware that the situation is precarious and problematic.
  • Almost everyone in the political sphere knows that Section 230 is a red herring. Making social media companies accountable for the information posted on their services might get them to 'clean up' the more obvious and indictable behavior of posters, but much of (say) the organizing chatter around the Jan 6 insurrection would not have met the requirements for legal action, and thus would still have been allowed. Repealing 230 might actually worsen the situation, giving the most ardent disinformation-mongers grounds to sue the corporations over any moderation efforts.
  • No one in the political sphere understands the problem fully, or has a real sense of what an effective solution would look like. In a non-polarized context, Congresspeople would would sit down in committee, call experts, and hash out a solution that neither side liked but both sides could tolerate. IN th current political environment, discussion and compromise are ludicrously faint hopes, because too many political leaders have been abusing the power of social media for political advantage, and few of that particular crop are likely to put their political advantages on the table in service of some higher democratic ideal.

There are solutions to this problem that I can see, but I cannot see a political path to achieving any of them, short of removing the more stubborn, machiavellian, and/or radical members of Congress over the next few election cycles. SO long as we have political leaders intent on profiting off of social discord, solutions to the underlying problems of social media are going to remain out of reach.

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  • "giving the most ardent disinformation-mongers grounds to sue the corporations over any moderation efforts". It's not clear to me what grounds they would have. They don't presently sue the NYT that it doesn't publish their writings. And SCOTUS even gave us the MNN case recently, so even public television (such as it is in the US) can't be forced to do it. – Fizz Feb 8 at 18:26
  • @Fizz: Ah how soon we all forget. Remember, the reason that we even think about section 230 is that Trump wanted it removed so he could sue media orgs that refused to give enough credence to his lies and conspiracy theories. People who profit from spreading misinformation are both the ones most likely to be moderated for their nonsense, and the ones most likely to sue for their right to spread nonsense. Remember, nuisance lawsuits are only illegal a handful of states, and a creative lawyer can bleed a company dry long before a case gets heard in court. – Ted Wrigley Feb 8 at 18:43
  • Was that the reason? Is there any basis to thinking it would work that way? I’ve always heard that without section 230, sites would have to be over-aggressive about removing content because they’d be liable for anything up on the site. – divibisan Feb 10 at 2:50
  • @divibisan: You're basically correct. Anyone who publishes anything has the right to refuse service to anyone else under the First Amendment, except for state actors (i.e. agents of the government), who have to follow more complicated rules if they want to offer publication services at all. Section 230 has a blanket immunity for moderation actions, but it's mostly redundant to 1A. – Kevin Feb 10 at 2:51
  • @divibisan: I don't know were Trump latched onto that idea: certainly it predated him. But (to be frank) I'm a comparatively informed citizen, and I hand't given that little bit of law any serious thought until Trump latched onto it. I don't personally think removing 230 would change much: Social media corps would would have to use the standard media disclaimer: "The opinions presented here are not the opinions of this company or any person employed therein", and might be more aggressive about labeling posts as 'disputed', but that's all I'd expect. – Ted Wrigley Feb 10 at 3:00

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