The Making Of A Moral Panic, Courtesy Of The NY Times
from the stop-this dept
And here’s another example of the virtuous cycle, in which the New York Times is able to first create a moral panic, and then gets to keep reporting on Congress “investigating” the moral panic the NY Times itself created. It started with an article in the NY Times discussing a website, which I will not name, that has created forums for those interested in suicide. The article is presented as saying (1) that the website encourages suicide… and (2) then appears to blame Section 230 for it. The reality, on both of those points, is a hell of a lot more complicated.
First off, discussions about “encouraging” suicide are always somewhat fraught. I’ve lost two friends to suicide, and it’s very, very natural to look for people to blame. But it’s often counterproductive, and no one can ever know for sure what actually caused someone to decide to end their life. A decade ago we talked about this a bit, in regards to two separate lawsuits looking to hold liable people who, it was argued, “drove” others to suicide. Except, as we noted at the time, when you blame people for “driving” or “encouraging” suicide, you are actually giving way more power to the suicide itself, because it gives more power to those thinking of killing themselves, knowing that it will punish people who had been mean to them. In other words, trying to hold people liable for “encouraging” suicide can, unfortunately, actually encourage more suicide in and of itself.
Suicide itself is a very fraught topic. In early 2021, Katie Engelhart’s book The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die came out, and it’s worth reading. It made me, personally, feel conflicted about the idea of assisted suicide and the right to die — and reminded me that it’s impossible to decide that there’s a “right” answer here. Every case is unique and they all involve a whole bunch of difficult moral decisions that different people weigh in different ways. But blaming others for the very personal decisions that an individual makes seems incredibly dangerous. Yet, the entire structure of the NY Times piece seems to want to put the blame on a website. And, on Section 230.
But, as the article itself noted, the existence of the site in question is due to other sites removing it. It apparently was a response to Reddit shutting down a forum that discussed suicide:
It came online after Reddit shut down a group where people had been sharing suicide methods and encouraging self-harm. Reddit prohibited such discussion, as did Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. Serge wrote days after the new site opened that the two men had started working on it because they ?hated to see the community disperse and disappear.? He assured users that ?this isn?t our first rodeo and we know how to keep the website safe.?
It seems notable that Section 230’s encouragement for websites to determine on their own what content they find acceptable and what content they do not, resulted in these major sites — Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and “other platforms” — not allowing such a discussion to happen on their websites. And yet… this separate community still formed. That should be notable, but the NY Times piece completely brushes by it. The fact is that people will form communities around such things. It is human nature. Indeed, it could be argued that if such communities had been allowed on places like Reddit, where they could more directly and easily be monitored by experts and professionals, there might be more opportunity to intervene and to help troubled individuals.
Instead, by continually banning such communities, the end result is that they move to ever darker places online, where it is harder and harder to monitor them, and where it’s more likely that unhelpful people begin to exert more and more power over those sites. As we’ve discussed before (also in relation to a NY Times article!), so much of these kinds of attacks on the internet are really just people upset that the internet is shining light on larger societal problems that have not been fixed — including those around mental health. It seems like a better system would be one designed to try to figure out ways to intervene in sites like the one the NY Times covers, and look for ways in which professionals could help guide those who need real help to the kinds of resources they actually need.
Instead, it’s just victimization all the way down, with everyone looking to point the blame finger, and no one looking to fix the underlying problem. They seem to think if only this website is taken offline (despite the fact it was a response to other sites shutting down communities) then, magically, communities of people exploring how to kill themselves will disappear. That’s not how it works.
But, of course, once the NY Times has created the moral panic, grandstanding politicians leap in to fluff it up even more — not noting that this article alone almost certainly drove way more attention to the website than it had received in the past.
Just weeks after the NY Times told so many people where to go to learn about how to kill themselves, the same NY Times reporters announced triumphantly that Congress is on the job of investigating the site. Are they looking to fund more efforts to help deal with mental health issues? Of course not! Are they looking at ways to help guide troubled individuals to better, more helpful resources? What, are you a communist or something? No, Congress wants to punish this website and anyone else who promotes it (except, of course, for the NY Times, which only wrote a giant article about the site, telling people how to find it).
Responding to a New York Times investigation of the site published this month, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Monday released a bipartisan statement requesting briefings from search engines, web-hosting companies and other tech companies whose services might have been leveraged by the suicide site.
?It is imperative that companies take the threat of such sites seriously and take appropriate steps to mitigate harm,? said the statement from the panel, led by Representative Frank J. Pallone Jr., Democrat of New Jersey.
A representative for Microsoft?s search engine, Bing, told The Times last week that the company had altered its search engine to lower the ranking of the site, which has been linked to a trail of deaths. On Monday, Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, sent a letter to Google and Bing asking the companies to fully remove the suicide site from their search results ? a step further than either search engine was willing to take.
On Tuesday, Representative Lori Trahan, Democrat of Massachusetts, along with six other House members, wrote to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland asking what options the Justice Department had for investigating the site and its founders and what steps lawmakers could take to allow for a prosecution. Noting that other countries had taken steps to restrict access to the site, the lawmakers also asked about removing it from search results in the United States.
Look how proud they are of what they’ve set in action — without any recognition of how none of this actually helps and how much they themselves contributed to the promotion of the site. This is how the media creates a moral panic.
It would be great if we saw politicians respond to this by focusing on the underlying problem — but why do that when you can just randomly try to blame everyone’s favorite bogeyman, “big tech.”