Dear Kara Swisher: Don't Let Your Hatred Of Facebook Destroy Free Speech Online

from the bad-takes dept

I’ll start this post off with a brief story about famed tech reporter Kara Swisher. Many, many years ago, she reached out to me and suggested we meet up for some reason or another (I honestly don’t remember why). I went to her house in San Francisco and we walked to a fancy nearby coffee shop where she insisted on telling me exactly what type of coffee I should get.

Here’s the thing: I don’t drink coffee. I can’t stand the stuff.

However, Swisher is such an incredible force of nature that I felt like I literally had no choice but to order the coffee that she recommended. I ordered it and drank (a bit of) it. And I’m not exactly a shrinking violet when it comes to expressing my own opinions on things.

That is to say, Swisher is not just strongly opinionated, she has a way of convincing lots of other people that her opinions should be theirs as well. And that’s a really powerful ability, and one that Swisher has wielded well over the past few decades — especially in calling bullshit on dumb tech ideas and policies. We need someone like Swisher holding tech companies accountable.

However, what happens when Swisher’s opinion is a bad one? She recently has become so focused on attacking Facebook (in some cases for good reasons) that her thinking on the company is going to cause an awful lot of harm to not just other reporters, but to free speech and the open internet. Last month I was shocked to find Swisher proactively cheering on government censorship in Sri Lanka, after the country blocked Facebook following the terrorist attacks in that country. We pointed out how shortsighted this was, and Trevor Timm from the Freedom of the Press Foundation was even more direct in his criticism, noting how it smacked of Western paternalism, in which “we” can handle free speech, but poor people “over there” somehow can’t.

Arguments like Swisher?s smack of ?otherism? and paternalism???ordinary Sri Lankans aren?t sophisticated enough to deal with these problems, we know better than they do, and we must trust their political leaders. It?s akin to the tired arguments made by many in the U.S. national security community that people in the Middle East ?can?t handle? democracy. It?s insulting.

Unfortunately, it appears that Swisher is continuing to argue for more and more censorship-by-Facebook — a company that she herself admits we cannot and should not trust. Her latest opinion piece at the NY Times, bizarrely, goes beyond just attacking Facebook to mistakenly attacking Section 230 of the CDA as well.

The story involves the latest “big controversy” on Facebook, in which some trolls have been posting slightly doctored videos of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, slowed down and (sometimes) edited, to make her appear to be slurring and stumbling over words. The videos have been getting passed around among Trump supporters — and Trump himself retweeted one of those doctored videos when it was featured on Fox News. There are plenty of reasons to decry the whole mess, as it’s a form of disiniformation and propaganda. After people called out Facebook about the video, the company proceeded to include a flag on the video, noting that it had been doctored, and downgrading the ability of the video to be spread more widely, but refusing to take it down entirely.

Many, many people (including Swisher) still disagree with this choice, arguing that since the video is being used for blatant propaganda and disinformation, it should be removed from Facebook entirely. Where you come down on this question may differ depending on where you sit. But Swisher goes beyond that, bizarrely (and ridiculously — and incorrectly) blaming Section 230 for this situation:

Would a broadcast network air this? Never. Would a newspaper publish it? Not without serious repercussions. Would a marketing campaign like this ever pass muster? False advertising.

No other media could get away with spreading anything like this because they lack the immunity protection that Facebook and other tech companies enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 was intended to spur innovation and encourage start-ups. Now it?s a shield to protect behemoths from any sensible rules.

This is wrong on so many levels that it makes me wonder where Swisher is getting her information from. Section 230 is what allows Facebook to flag and “demote” this video in the first place. Without it, the company would be held liable for any of the moderation choices it made (see: Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy, the law that inspired CDA 230 and which CDA 230 explicitly overrules).

Without a CDA 230, platforms are incentvized to do one of two things: either look the other way and ignore basically all content, so as not to be held liable (which would make the situation Swisher is complaining about even worse), or to basically block almost everything that might possibly be controversial, meaning tons of perfectly legal and important speech would get blocked. This is not a good solution — and certainly not one that a reporter should be advocating for.

Also, her analysis is simply incorrect. First of all, the claim that “no media could get away” with this is proven incorrect by the fact that Fox News did, in fact, spread one of these videos. And if anyone sued Fox over this, it would win on 1st Amendment grounds. And there have not been “serious repercussions.” Unless you count whatever the fuck this tweet from Rudy Giuliani was supposed to say:

Second, the point of CDA 230 is that the internet does not work like a news publication. There is no “editor” who reviews what goes up, because it’s a communications medium, like the telephone. We don’t expect AT&T to monitor everything everyone says on the telephone (I mean, the NSA may expect it, but most people are rightfully horrified by this concept), so why should we expect the same here?

Some, including Swisher probably, would argue that they’re not asking for just ditching CDA 230, but amending it to require some sort of “responsibility”. But that also opens up massive questions — ones that Swisher seems unprepared to deal with. As the UN’s expert on free expression, David Kaye, suggested, just try to come up with rules that would force Facebook to remove the Pelosi video but wouldn’t then end up being used against dissent, humor, satire or other forms of protected speech:

Or, to be even more to the point, the EFF’s Jillian York noted that if you’re going to require that Facebook face responsibility for “disinformation” — or even disinformation that leads to harm — how exactly is Facebook expected to deal with religious information:

For quite some time now, we’ve been talking about the “impossibility” of doing content moderation at scale well. There are always going to be disagreements. But Section 230 is what allows for experimentation. People can (and should) criticize Facebook when they think the company made the wrong call, but to blithely toss Section 230 under the bus as the reason for Facebook failing to meet her own exacting standards, Swisher is actually throwing the open internet and free speech under the bus instead. It’s a horrifically bad take, and one that Swisher should know better about.

And, if Swisher, wants, I’m happy to discuss this with her in more detail. Perhaps over a cup of tea.

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Comments on “Dear Kara Swisher: Don't Let Your Hatred Of Facebook Destroy Free Speech Online”

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55 Comments
Mervin Upton East-Side says:

So full of mistaken premises, nonplused where to start!

1) But first and foremost: Facebook is not for "free speech". It’s a corporation that has only money and power for goals. It doesn’t care beans about any "natural" person’s Rights.

2) Neither are you, supporting an alleged "right" of corporations to control all speech by way of denying "platform" even when speech is well within common law and Supreme Court decisions. — I’ve linked to your quote so often that all regulars know it.

From such utterly mistaken premises, you cannot possibly come to any correct conclusion, so whether you’re right about the contradictory Swisher is irrelevant. — And indeed, she’s fairly clearly from what you quote just another self-contradictory netwit, not actually for any non-corporatized view of "free speech".

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: So full of mistaken premises, nonplused where to start!

I do not think you understand the origins and subsequent implementations of the concept of free speech in the US.

If you really do want to learn and understand, I suggest your read the constitution including the bill of rights. Sadly, I do not think that is your goal.

FlatZOut (profile) says:

Re: Re: I have a question for you.

This is not an “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader” question.
Even a little child could answer this.
Answer: None.
Facebook doesn’t own Dailymotion or Youtube. Facebook can’t control what you look up on Yahoo or Bing. Facebook can’t block you from Twitch or NewGrounds. Facebook is Facebook’s own territory.

Bruce C. says:

Re: Re: Re: I have a question for you.

Now if the question was "How much speech does Alphabet control outside of Google?", the answer would be more interesting. Blocking search results can effectively censor anything on the web at all for 90% of the population.

I’m all for ensuring that our laws encourage platforms to allow as much free speech as possible (i.e., don’t penalize them for open terms of service). But the platforms don’t even bother to fight these bad laws anymore. They just apply the censorship restrictions in the fastest way possible, either across the entire platform or with rudimentary geo-blocking. They’re so afraid of losing the PR battle to the "think of the children" crowd, that they don’t consider the role their platform plays in the online forum of ideas.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2

Blocking search results can effectively censor anything on the web at all for 90% of the population.

If a search engine can’t control what someone posts on the Internet, it can’t censor them. And it has no obligation to either show someone a specific search result or send web traffic in their direction.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If they exercise any discretion, someone whines that whoever appears lower or is unranked is being censored. If they return exactly what someone’s asking for, they’re "weaponising" results to attack others.

For some reason, exercising self-control, responsibility and voting with your wallet are past concepts, now all we have is a bunch of whiny children complaining that multinational corporations don’t bow to their personal needs.

FlatZOut (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Oh Really, PaulT?

…now all we have is a bunch of whiny children complaining that multinational corporations don’t bow to their personal needs.
And who would you blame for this? The education system? Poor parenting? Or perhaps someone who has a way of brainwashing innocent kids to throw our world into a disarray?
I mean there are a lot of suspects out there, and each have their reasons. It wouldn’t be surprising if there was a whole blacklist of these premature idiots who think that just because they’re older than us means they can force their retarded opinions upon the younger generation.

People constantly complain that their forms of government do not work. In fact, there is no correct form of government that can handle the diversity of needs of the people they govern. And even so, it’s all too broken to fix anyway.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: So full of mistaken premises, nonplused where to start!

even when speech is well within common law

Please explain – in writing – what speech violates common law?
Please stop spouting your bullshit and running away.
If you believed in Free Speech like you say, you’d proudly tell us about Your website where you do everything right that TD does wrong.

And yet you love corporate censorship when it’s called Copyright.

Cdaragorn (profile) says:

Re: So full of mistaken premises, nonplused where to start!

The only mistaken premise here is yours. Your belief that Facebook is required by any law or ever should be required to allow speech they don’t want is false. You’re allowed to kick anyone out of your home for saying things you don’t like. For the exact same reason Facebook is allowed to kick anyone off of their site.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: So full of mistaken premises, nonplused where to start!

Free speech does not mean that you can force others to carry you speech for free, or force other to listen to you. It mean that you can spend your own money and time publishing your speech, and trying to gain an audience for that speech. If you cannot attract an audience, which Mike has managed to do, perhaps it is time to think about why people do not want to listen to you.

HegemonicDistortion (profile) says:

Swisher is a tech bubble herself. She seems to believe she asks all the hard questions, has such deep insights, and breaks deep news (see for example all the self-cites to her interview with Zuckerberg at SXSW a few years ago, which she constantly references in new pieces, and which she seems to believe was profound, powerful work).

But the reality is that her work is mostly the hot air of a hype bubble — superficial, sometimes to the point of being silly. The piece cited in Mike’s article above is one. Another is a fairly recent piece (also in the NYT) about the potential societal benefits of tech companies creating "chief ethical officer" positions, which she took at face value and treated earnestly, seemingly oblivious to the notion that these might just be pure PR moves and that no actual power would be accorded to such figureheads whatsoever.

michael (profile) says:

Re: Re:

her work is mostly the hot air of a hype bubble — superficial, sometimes to the point of being silly.

This is precisely my view of Swisher, having first become aware of her when she was a (terrible and terribly uninformed) guest on TWIT years ago. She has strongly held beliefs on all things tech, but I have yet to see any evidence that those beliefs are based on actual understanding or knowledge of anything at all.

From that perspective, she’s the perfect person to replace David Pogue at NYTimes. Neither of them seem to know a damn thing, but are happy collecting the paycheck and getting the publicity.

Anonymous Coward says:

Mike says:

slightly doctored videos of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, slowed down and (sometimes) edited, to make her appear to be slurring and stumbling over words. The videos have been getting passed around among Trump supporters — and Trump himself retweeted one of those doctored videos when it was featured on Fox News. There are plenty of reasons to decry the whole mess, as it’s a form of disiniformation and propaganda.

Why was it not "disiniformation and propaganda" when Time Photoshopped a magazine cover showing trump standing over and looking down smugly at a wailing child that was looking up at him in anguish? It was a very powerful, emotional, and heart-wrenching picture … except that it never happened. Whatsoever. Yet the left celebrated that completely fake photograph, but howled with rage when an almost-but-not-quite-accurate video of Nancy Pelosi emerges.

The video of Nancy Pelosi that Trump retweeted was not at all "doctored" — it was slowed down to 3/4 speed. (Compare it to the C-SPAN original, they seem virtually identical in everything but speed.) Yet to the people who run Youtube, this was an abomination that had to be completely eradicated off YouTube. If that’s YouTube’s new standard for forbidden content, then we’re in serious trouble. But of course such a standard will only be applied selectively in the future, and it’s not hard to guess upon which political side the ban hammer will come down on. All of Youtube’s countless doctored videos showing Trump saying and doing comically stupid things will almost certainly remain up, while any similar ones of Pelosi will get deleted without a second thought. And those of us who dare to notice the blatant double standard will, as usual, get branded as delusional.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The video of Nancy Pelosi that Trump retweeted was not at all "doctored" — it was slowed down to 3/4 speed.

doctor: verb, used with object: to tamper with; falsify

slowing down a video (especially without acknowledging that it was slowed) would be tampering with it. Therefore, it was doctored.

Why was it not "disiniformation and propaganda" when Time Photoshopped a magazine cover

Yet the left celebrated that completely fake photograph, but howled with rage when an almost-but-not-quite-accurate video of Nancy Pelosi emerges.

And those of us who dare to notice the blatant double standard will, as usual, get branded as delusional.

It’s not a double standard. If Trump was a Democrat you’d have the Republicans crying "impeach!" and the Democrats saying "no collusion, no obstruction!" Dems and Repubs both do it, and it’s wrong in every case. They both celebrate it when it makes the other look bad, they both howl with rage when it’s done to them, and neither takes any action against their own.

It’s tribalism, pure and simple. The Republican and Democratic parties are the same – they’re both only interested in the perpetuation of their own power. Actually doing something beneficial for the country is secondary to that goal. That’s why they both need to be removed from power. It’s not likely to happen though – too many people in the tribes.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"The video of Nancy Pelosi that Trump retweeted was not at all "doctored" — it was slowed down to 3/4 speed. "

It wasn’t doctored, it was only edited to present a false narrative!

FFS lol

"All of Youtube’s countless doctored videos showing Trump saying and doing comically stupid things"

A lot of those aren’t doctored, chief.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

"You see," hemmed and hawed the voluntary PR assistants for Trump, "he intended to make fun of people he didn’t like, just not in a way we feel warrants your negative feedback."

The biggest draw of Trump is the bizarre way everyone seems to let him get away with increasingly ridiculous shit.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Tribalism mixed with sunk costs fallacy and a dash of petty spite I suspect are the main culprits.

He’s on their team so he gets a pass(or two… dozen… hundred…) where he wouldn’t if he were on the other team, admitting just how absurd/stupid/corrupt he is would require people to admit that they were fooled by someone that buffoonish, and/or so long as he screws over the other team then who cares how stupid he is or how much his actions impact his own team.

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Why was it not "disiniformation and propaganda" when Time Photoshopped a magazine cover showing trump standing over and looking down smugly at a wailing child that was looking up at him in anguish? It was a very powerful, emotional, and heart-wrenching picture … except that it never happened. Whatsoever.

Erm, no. While Trump has not personally encountered that particular child or any other in the context of "White supremacist mistreats children of colour because he can" he totally dismissed and ignored the plight of such children, which continues today.

https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/05/02/border-family-separations-trump-administration-border-patrol/3563990002/

While Time did indeed photoshop the image, they accurately rendered the Trump administration’s attitude towards them thus it wasn’t disinformation. Melania’s coat choice when she went to visit one of the holding centres didn’t help matters much. This is how compassionate people see this.

As for Pelosi, the "only slowed down" video was designed to present her as incompetent without any supporting evidence or context. I’ve got issues with her neocon politics and the video I’d make would reflect that. It’s lazy to depict people we don’t like as drunken or otherwise incompetent per se. It takes effort to actually show what the issue we have with them is.

Anonymous Coward says:

Without section 230 there would be massive censorship of free speech,
some websites would close down or else block all user comments .
section 230 is one of the rules which means the open internet can exist .
For a journalist to say section 230 should be changed
is like a boxer saying no one should be allowed
to play dangerous sports that might cause injurys.

Anonymous Coward says:

Edited Video Is Going To Be A Big Problem

And this video here is baby stuff. Heck, I could probably train a dog to edit a video to 75% playback speed then upload it to Youtube/Facebook/etc. I say we work together to solve this as an engineering problem before some lawmaker gets their jimmies rustled and makes a law we all regret.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Edited Video Is Going To Be A Big Problem

Ever since YouTube introduced Content ID to detect unauthorized copies, it’s been a standard workaround from the beginning to simply change the video’s speed and pitch to defeat ContentID (before adding ‘snow’ and a dynamic background frame became necessary to ensure safety from auto-takedowns of popular Hollywood content years later).

There must be literally millions of existing videos on Youtube with altered speed. The question remains, what’s going to be Youtube’s standard for deletion, a +/- 25% speed alteration (as with the Pelosi video) or some other amount, and will the common YouTube practice of mocking people by slowing down, speeding up, and/or pitch-adjusting their speech going to be a universal takedown/ban-inducing offense? Or will the rule apply only to prominant Democratic party (and especiallly elderly female) politicians?

That One Guy (profile) says:

One persistent disease...

What is it with people who should absolutely know better making such public fools of themselves by screwing up a basis thing? ‘230 gives online platforms special protections!’ Uh, no, in fact it gives them the same protections that offline platforms get in that you can’t blame them for what someone else does.

If someone writes something defamatory in a printed copy of the New York Times you don’t get to sue the company for defamation, as they weren’t the ones who wrote it.

If someone slips an illegal photo in a book you don’t get to sue the book’s publisher for the photo, as they didn’t put it in there.

Likewise, if someone says something bad/illegal on an online platform you don’t get to sue the platform just because they offered the platform and didn’t immediately scrub the offending item/prevent it from being posted in the first place.

People claiming that 230 gives online platforms extra protections and therefore is unfair are not just wrong they’re dead backwards, in that removing 230 and holding platforms accountable for what their users do would give them less protections than offline publishers/platforms have.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Over a Cup of Tea

I’m… going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you merely meant ‘put her to sleep so you don’t have to listen to her blather on regarding subjects she lacks knowledge of’ rather than ‘kill her’, which would be way out of bounds.

That said, if you’re going to add something(which I would neither recommend or support) I’d go with laxatives as the tea additive, as it appears she’s a little overflowing with shit.

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