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Social Media Critics Ignore Rest of Internet

from the there-are-better-ways... dept

Conservative criticism of social media content moderation is often characterized by misinformation and unfounded allegations. Factually unsupported assertions that federal law requires firms such as Facebook and Twitter to choose whether they are “platforms” and “publishers” — and dubious claims that “Big Tech” is engaged in a concerted anti-conservative campaign are prominent — but they’re not the most interesting feature of the present content moderation debate.

More interesting is the lack of imagination that seems to dominate the discourse. Rather than exploring different content moderation regimes, conservatives have focused on shaping the rules of established companies through regulation and legislation. The ironic result of this narrow thinking could be the entrenchment of market incumbents.

Conservative complaints about Silicon Valley censorship are often based on poor methodological study and collections of anecdotes. Although conclusive evidence that Silicon Valley is engaged in an anti-conservative campaign is lacking, many Republican lawmakers have used claims of bias as the basis for legislative proposals that would radically change how the Internet is regulated and governed.

Conservative critics of the most prominent social media companies are correct to note that content moderation at Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (owned by Google) is centralized, with human content moderators and machine learning tools tasked with implementing a single governing set of content guidelines. This centralized system is far from perfect, and in an environment where Twitter users post half a billion tweets a day and YouTube account holders upload about 500 hours of video a minute false positives and false negatives should be expected.

In addition, speech intended for specific audiences may be misunderstood by moderators from different backgrounds, but at scale, firms simply lack the time or resources to provide boutique, culturally-aware governance.

Centralized content moderation also suffers from a perceived lack of transparency and process, with Silicon Valley behemoths considered by many to be secretive, distant institutions with few incentives to care about an individual case when their empires include millions or billions.

Republican responses to allegations of political bias have focused on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law that shields owners of interactive computer services such as social media companies, newspaper comments sections, university and library websites, and others from being held liable for the vast majority of content posted by third party users.

A separate post would be required to dissect every Republican Section 230 proposal, but it is fair to say that most take aim at Section 230 with the intent of reforming social media companies’ content moderation rules. Proposals include conditioning Section 230 protections on “politically neutral” content moderation policies.

But while the modern debate on social media has focused on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other household name companies, Republican lawmakers should remember that the centralized content moderation model is not a necessary feature of social media and that there are other models that offer solutions “big tech” critics across the political spectrum seek.

Although not household names, there are social media services that implement more permissive content moderation policies. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are hardly alone in the social media universe. The Internet is full of social media sites. Indeed, some of these sites – such as Gab and Parler – emerged as centralized alternatives to Twitter, with their creators citing concerns about big tech bias.

There are social media sites that reject centralization altogether. Mastodon is an example of a social media service that embraces a governance structure very different from those seen in big tech social media. It is open source and allows users to host their own nodes.

Diaspora is another social media service that rejects the centralized governance of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. It is a non-profit and based on the principles of decentralization, privacy, and freedom to alter and tweak source code. There are also LBRY and the InterPlanetary File System; peer-to-peer decentralized protocols that allow users to share content absent any central governing authority.

Conservatives who want a social media service where they can form their own communities, find like-minded users, and build content moderation rules consistent with their values have plenty of options available.

Nonetheless, conservatives concerned about big tech bias seem unaware of the plethora of options available. It has never been easier for conservatives to build their own communities, share ideas, and seek to convince others of their ideology. Sadly, rather than embrace competition and innovation, many conservative activists and lawmakers have turned to government.

The risks are difficult to overstate. Powerful market incumbents may oppose regulation, but once the writing is on the wall, they will take steps to ensure that they, and not smaller competitors, are able to comply with new regulations. The result will be the entrenchment of the companies conservative activists criticize. When conservative lawmakers and activists claim that Section 230 is a big tech subsidy, they are engaged in misleading rhetoric that is precisely the opposite of the truth. If anything, Section 230 should be considered a subsidy for big tech competitors. It ensures that they do not need to hire teams of lawmakers, saving them startup costs.

An unintended consequence of Section 230 reforms and legislation motivated by weak claims of anti-conservative bias could be big tech getting bigger, with Facebook, Google, and Twitter continuing to dominate American speech online.

We are still in the early years of online speech, yet activists and lawmakers seem to have forgotten much of its short history. Firms that at one time seem to dominate online speech, online search, and online entertainment have been displaced in the past. AskJeeves, AOL instant messenger, MySpace, and many others have fallen into obscurity or disappeared altogether. Facebook, Twitter, and Google may be dominant today, but their continued success is not an axiom of history.

Conservatives convinced of big tech’s anti-conservative bias ought to consider the numerous platforms and competing content moderation models available. The future of online speech does not have to be centralized and dominated by a handful of firms, but continued calls for regulation in the name of content moderation risks further empowering market incumbents.

Matthew Feeney is the director of Cato’s Project on Emerging Technologies, where he works on issues concerning the intersection of new technologies and civil liberties. Before coming to Cato, Matthew worked at Reason magazine as assistant editor of Reason?.com. He has also worked at The American Conservative, the Liberal Democrats, and the Institute of Economic Affairs. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, HuffPost, The Hill, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Examiner, City A.M., and others. He also contributed a chapter to libertarianism.org’s Visions of Liberty. Matthew received both his B.A and M.A in philosophy from the University of Reading.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

It has never been easier for conservatives to build their own communities, share ideas, and seek to convince others of their ideology.

They don’t want their own communities, though. They want the one everyone else is in so they can peddle conservate ideology to the masses…and to “own the libs”, so to speak. They say they want “fair treatment”, but what they want is special treatment — the right to spread certain odious views¹ without interference from The Powers That Be.


¹ — Oh, you know the ones.

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: 'Free speech means a mandatory audience, right?'

Beat me to it. They don’t want a platform where they can say whatever they want, if they did they could easily create one themselves(and some of them even have, for all the good it did them) what they want is for the current platforms where all the people are to be forced to host them, because they know that given the choice between a platform with the kind of ‘conservatives’ that are being so very persecuted currently and one without that kind of person on it most people are going to choose the one without, leaving them just yelling at each other.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Free speech does not include the right to force yourself on an audience that does not want to hear your speech. So what you want is the antithesis of free speech, by being a law that allows you to exercise the hecklers veto, and silence opposing view by poisoning most platforms with your bile.

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Anonymous Coward says:

This isn’t a "free speech" issue. It’s first amendment, all right, but it’s "right to assemble". We all have the right to assemble (on our own property), invite (or dis-invite) whomever we wish, and discuss only our own chosen issues (and even then, present only our own chosen viewpoints on those issues.)

A crazed AAAA vigilante is going to get arrested if he crashes Easter Mass at the local cathedral. And a dude in priest’s habiliments is going to get propositioned if he enters a gay bar. Some property owners are more tolerant (because they want larger assemblies). But that’s their choice. I can’t claim a right to say ANYTHING in Easter Mass, even if it turns out that the Roman Catholic church has WAY more members in my town than the AAAA. I can’t claim the right to speak at a Super Bowl halftime just because my new miracle ministry attracts no visitors.

Twitter is no different.

Caveat: You’re as likely to see me at any of these events as … well, as feral hogs flying synchronized aerobatics over the frozen sulfur floes of Haiti. But that doesn’t matter. The first amendment says I don’t get to say who assembles on anyone else’s lawn, or who gets asked to leave before the orgy’s over.

Anonymous Coward says:

I have a question for comenters which are more knowledgeable than me – s there any study done on content propagation (the number of times / the audience it reaches) of selected messages, divided into categories? Craig Murray made an interesting post on his blog a while ago, providing anecdotal evidence that Twitter "tunes down" the reach of some of his liberal messages, apparently depending on their content. Seems to me that "throttling" the reach of messages is something that sec 230 does not address at all, am I right? Facebook for example gave overexposure to many conservative posts (factually demonstrated during brexit), and at the same time deleted just some, playing the system by looking anti-conservative while pushing its own agenda, correct?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I would disagree with that. If I had my own conservative social network, I would, every once in a while, censor at random some right-wing extremist with a mid-sized audience on the basis of some racist and xenophobic message. I would select some common phrases to censor, so to make my decision look even more arbitrary. I would censor seldomly, totally arbitrarily, and without significant impact (targeting mid sized follower bases). This would get the knee-jerk reaction I want: the conservative users would rally together, to fight a perceived "injustice", and their reaction would enable me to publicly take "corrective actions" that further cater to the conservative base I want to support, in a positive feedback loop, exciting them with a perceived victory over the "tyranny of the internet". Personally, I am not evil enough for this. But maybe, just maybe, this could be done by a fascist that considers his users "dumb ****s" and already manipulated the election process in multiple countries…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

As evidence, I could bring the fines for sharing data with conservative campaigns, like with cambridge analytica, Ted Cruz, Trump. And these are the only ones we know about. Given the intense scrutiny on everything Facebook does, including very smart people here on TechDirt and elsewhere, I do not see how it is a coincidence that they got embroiled in scandals related to conservative campaigns only. But yes, you are right, there is no hard data about it. That is why I was asking if you know of some research done on testing the "reach" of messages depending their political orientation. This would be my next logical step to try, if I were to continue the work of Christopher Wylie. Or perhaps if you could think about a method to work it out, like Craig Murray did with his own Twitter account, checking different impression numbers of his messages on his dashboard, and finding out that a message just containing "testing reach" got 3 times more views than a message criticizing Alex Salmond’s trial, all other things equal. I understand that Twitter is not Facebook, but if you are interested, his experiment is explained here: https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2020/05/more-information-wars/
And my idea is – perhaps there is a more scientific way of conducting the same experiment to gather data systematically and prove what I am suspecting?

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4

I could bring the fines for sharing data with conservative campaigns, like with cambridge analytica, Ted Cruz, Trump

The fines were less about who the data was shared with and more about the fact that the data was shared in the first place. Facebook didn’t make conservatives use the services of Cambridge Analytica.

I do not see how it is a coincidence that they got embroiled in scandals related to conservative campaigns only

Maybe it’s the fault of conservatives and not Facebook. But I’m sure you considered that~.

That is why I was asking if you know of some research done on testing the "reach" of messages depending their political orientation.

Irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

The Plaintiff has offered no proof of the claim that Facebook admins have moderated speech on Facebook in a way that both gives favorable treatment to and intentionally pisses off conservatives. The failure to cite the substance of their claims, as is required for those claims to be taken seriously, compels dismissal.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

by "system" I mean the legislation as a whole, sec 230, the first amendment, but also the general way the public understands the public discourse. Shouting in the crowd whatever you want is your right. In the current world, you are given a microphone – and your volume is decided by a private entity. If your message reaches only the first row, or the entire theatre, well, that is not your decision. A third party, with a specific agenda, can artificially tune down the volume of the messages that do not fit with their agends. So you are formally respecting all the laws, everyone says what he wants, but you are legalizing the manipulation of the discussion by allowing someone to decide who has the right to become "viral" and who has not. This is how facebook hides behind a formal rule system and at the same time manipulates their audiences. It has nothing to do with "banning" people, or suspending accounts, or "moderation" as it is intended by the legislator, which is where 99% of the discussion always steer. The content moderation discussion is conveniently pushed on the "censorship" or "deplatforming" angle, or the "fake news", keeping the manipulation, which is the real problem, out of the public eyte. And while the public cries over whichever pundit that got suspended or tagged, at the same time facebook promotes fascist, populist messages where everyone can see them, recursively, trying one after the other, until it finally hits the right one that goes viral and shifts the preferences of selected, sensitive groups of people.

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nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

by "system" I mean the legislation as a whole

Far too broad to address.

sec 230

They’re using that system exactly as it was designed.

the first amendment

Likewise. Moderation decisions are protected speech.

the general way the public understands the public discourse

I would say the public understands these companies moderate their platforms. Less common seems to be an understanding that they have the right to do so however they see fit.

you are legalizing the manipulation of the discussion by allowing someone to decide who has the right to become "viral" and who has not.

Yes, Facebook, Twitter, and everyone else have the right to decide how their private property is used. Don’t you think they should?

at the same time facebook promotes fascist, populist messages where everyone can see them, recursively, trying one after the other, until it finally hits the right one that goes viral and shifts the preferences of selected, sensitive groups of people.

Do you have any evidence that Facebook is promoting fascist messages? That’s one I don’t remember hearing before.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"Do you have any evidence that Facebook is promoting fascist messages?"
That was my question – given the evidence of facebook helping, illegally, proxies to promote fascist messages (inflammatory and derogatory messages in UK, Italy, Germany, France..), I was wondering if a study can be done on the reach of how/when-which extremist messages become viral on facebook, to reverse engineer the dynamics that they apply, and sort them by political orientation.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

you are legalizing the manipulation of the discussion by allowing someone to decide who has the right to become "viral" and who has not

I have One Simple Question for you. Yes or no: Do you think the law should force the owner(s) of an interactive web service to host any and all legally protected speech, even if they don’t want to host certain kinds of speech?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

the answer is a clear and resolute NO. private companies can do what they want. but I have a much more complex question for you: why the rules that apply to political parties, transparency in primis, do not apply to social networks when it is proven that they can influence elections and manipulate the perception of the voting public? is a private company that actively, covertly and illegally (fined many times over) promotes a political agenda to be considered a private company then?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

OK. Then lets make it fair for everyone, and scrap all the legislation about lobbying and preventing interference in the political arena by "old school" companies like industrial groups, retail and so on. If any private company can do politics the way it likes, with whatever mean at their disposal, lets level the field. I am only against facebook having an unfair advantage versus, say, walmart or or goldman sachs because of how facebook abused, politically, of their users base.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

I am afraid there is no simple solution to a very complex problem and a fast changing technology. But at least discussing facebook political influence, without getting lost on "who banned whom", could be a decent starting point, if supported by research that completes the work done on Cambridge Analytica, wich in my opinion fell short because the proxy was disposed of and ultimately facebook conveniently paid only a fine and went back to business as usual.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7

discussing facebook political influence, without getting lost on "who banned whom", could be a decent starting point

Yes, it would. And if you would start doing that instead getting lost in your baseless accusations in re: Facebook willfully and intentionally spreading right-wing propaganda, that’d be lovely.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:8 Re:

point taken – as I wrote I do not believe that the fact that scandals concerning privacy violations came only from a precise, populist political area are a coincidence, but you are right in this respect, my allegations are not proven at this point and perhaps I am pushing it too far. but then coming back to the point, if you regulate Goldman Sachs in a million ways, including separation between banking and investment for example, Chinese walls and so on, why there is no such framework for a social network which arguably could have even broader impact on how people behave and therefore the system at large? what is your opinion then?

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:9

why there is no such framework for a social network which arguably could have even broader impact on how people behave and therefore the system at large?

Because then you’d have to regulate other outlets for speech that can similarly influence behaviors and thoughts. Books, newspapers, personal blogs — do you really want to go down the rabbit hole of government regulation for those?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:11 Re:

old industry went through the rabbit hole – and the social contract was updated to include, say, unions, limits on advertising false statements etc. I am not saying these things are good, but that they were decided by elected people mediating through different interests as representatives. why with tech companies and especially social medias it should be any different?

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:12

why with tech companies and especially social medias it should be any different?

In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be different. But we don’t live on that world. We live in the real world, and in the real world, non-fascist governments get a little skittish about regulating outlets for speech. Or would you prefer newspapers to be under government control?

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:11

If you can think of a way to regulate Facebook such that it can’t impact society/its behavior while making sure such regulations don’t also regulate speech (including what legally protected speech Facebook can and cannot, will and will not, must and must not host), feel free to share it. I don’t think you can, and I don’t think you’d want to — because the law you use to regulate Facebook could be used to regulate every other interactive web service. That includes this comment section, too.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:12 Re:

there is a fundamental difference though – the active propagation of certain messages through user tailored algorithms. if I don’t come here to read and comment, techdirt will not show up in a feed that is prepared by someone. this active shaping of feeds of what you "might like" is what marks the difference between a broadcast,including blogs, and social networks. we are talking about how this active tailoring is done – and the unfair advantage that comes with the exclusive possession of extremely detailed data points. arent we at least in the territory of unfair competition then?

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:13

we are talking about how this active tailoring is done – and the unfair advantage that comes with the exclusive possession of extremely detailed data points. arent we at least in the territory of unfair competition then?

Let’s say I agree that it is unfair competition. How do you regulate Facebook’s algorithms without also regulating speech, and without having that regulation applied to all other interactive web services that use algorithms to fine-tune what users see?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:18 Re:

but the access itself is already in the open – not further that the permission manager of the phone I am holding now. if I am not mistaken now all data is equal- location or heart rate or microphone or browser history. perhaps we could approach the problem from the data side – companies that handle location, for example, must publish what they do with it. or, stop asking for it in their apps (which work without location sharing anyway…)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:19 Re:

interesting analogy though – if the value is in the data, which is generated by the citizens, then you could argue that the state should license its extraction and treatment, like with other resources. sounds horrible, but gives another angle to the discussion: taxes. perhaps by taxing data access selectively, with different taxes on different data, you could also better align economic interests. pls forgive my european bias – we do solve a lot of problems with taxes here – but I think you understand what I am trying to say.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:21 Re:

my point is different, it is about the sale of data, not the use of service – data of citizens is worth money, and via data monetization facebook, google et al can offer their services for free. So it is not users that should pay to use facebook. Citizens are collectively giving away national data, which has a value, for free. Is it comparable to giving away, for example, the water in our lakes to a third party that then makes money out of it?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:12 Re:

i dont want to talebanize anything at all, and the current political climate is very unfavorable for such discussions, not only in the US. still, the line between "commercial" and lets say "patronizing", just to avoid "theocratic", is very subtle in areas like banking. perhaps the situation can be described as an unsolved conflict of interest – between the economic motive of tech comlanies to compete with traditional medias, whatever the message might be, and the consequences that are sustained by spreading such "competing" messages on the society.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:14 Re:

agree to a certain point. if facebook was running my car and i was going to work, it would probably stop 4 times right in front of shops where they sell something i might need, but i dont. and while i would not pay for gas, it would still take me 3 times more time to get to work trying focus on the road while the radio shouts things specifically designed to distract me.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:13 Re:

You cannot compare banking and social media, or news media for that matter so that you can regulate speech like you regulate financial institutes. Also, you can find and/or setup sites where you can put forward whatever politics that you want. The size of the audience that you can attract to such sites gives you a measure of the popularity of your politics.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

but you are legalizing the manipulation of the discussion by allowing someone to decide who has the right to become "viral" and who has not.

You are one of the people that make moderation necessary, as you want the right to force all discussions in the direction that you want, regardless of the desires of the platforms and their users. If you do not like how Facebook moderates speech go to a platform like 4chan. Parler, etc. which moderates speech in a way that you prefer. If people will not follow you to your chosen platform, them you know how popular you speech.

Also, pre Internet, public discussion was highly manipulated, much more so that on the social media platforms, because editors chose whose speech that they would publish, by looking at a small selection of submitted speech,mainly from known authors, selecting some of that speech to publish, and ignoring the rest.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"pre Internet, public discussion was highly manipulated". True, for example for newspapers. But the level of psychological profiling that is possible now is very different, and my point is that the regulation (as it often happens) is completely behind the curve, focusing on the message, not on the subtle way it is propagated to achieve a desired effect. I have nothing against facebook acting as a political organization. I am against facebook acting as a political organization, while pretending that they are a private company.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3

I am against facebook acting as a political organization, while pretending that they are a private company.

Last I checked, non-profits involved with political causes are still private companies, so your complaint about Facebook holds little water here. We get it, you have a grudge against Facebook because you think it’s intentionally trying to silence conservative voices (on Facebook) — either prove it or leave, because we don’t care about your imaginary political grievance.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

you are really wrong here – I do have a grudge against facebook, of course, and it is exactly because my country (Italy) has been damaged by facebook fuelled spreading of right wing populism via illegal data sharing, among other things. But having a grudge against facebook does not mean that what I say is wrong – I was asking if someone knows of studies or research that can support what I suspect.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Future Agendas will operate ABOVE THE LAW.

The corporate supported media and The Republican senate are following Trumps tactics in operating ABOVE the law against numerous u.s. court rulings that the election wasn’t rigged and decided the u.s. capital needed to be storm to secure the loyalty of 75 million voters. The main push? making money while in office after securing enough votes like CAR SALEMAN TACTIC!
The middle and lower class often are require to operate BELOW the law ( small marijuna arrest etc… )

Anonymous Coward says:

Future Agendas will operate ABOVE THE LAW.

The corporate supported media and The Republican senate are following Trumps tactics in operating ABOVE the law against numerous u.s. court rulings that the election wasn’t rigged and decided the u.s. capital needed to be storm to secure the loyalty of 75 million voters. The main push? making money while in office after securing enough votes like CAR SALEMAN TACTIC!
The middle and lower class often are require to operate BELOW the law ( small marijuna arrest etc… )

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