Stop Using Content Moderation Demands As An Effort To Hide The Government's Social Policy Failures

from the look!-squirrel! dept

We've been seeing over and over again lately that politicians (and, unfortunately, the media) are frequently blaming social media and content moderation for larger societal problems, that the government itself has never been able to solve.

In other words, what's really happening is that the supposedly "bad stuff" that shows up on social media is really indicative of societal failures regarding education, mental health services, criminal law, social safety nets, and much much more. All social media is really doing is putting a spotlight on those failures. And the demands from politicians and the media for content moderation to "solve" these issues is really often about trying to sweep those problems under the rug by hiding them from public view, rather than looking for ways to tackle those much larger, much more difficult societal questions.

Over in Wired, Harvard law lecturer (and former Techdirt podcast guest), Evelyn Douek, has one of the best articles I've seen making this point. First, she describes how -- contrary to the narrative that still holds among some that social media companies resist doing any moderation at all -- these days, they're much more aggressive in seeking to strike down disinformation:

Misinformation about the pandemic was supposed to be the easy case. In response to the global emergency, the platforms were finally moving fast and cracking down on Covid-19 misinformation in a way that they never had before. As a result, there was about a week in March 2020 when social media platforms, battered by almost unrelenting criticism for the last four years, were good again. “Who knew the techlash was susceptible to a virus?” Steven Levy asked.

Such was the enthusiasm for these actions that there were immediately calls for them to do the same thing all the time for all misinformation—not just medical. Initially, platforms insisted that Covid misinformation was different. The likelihood of harm arising from it was higher, they argued. Plus, there were clear authorities they could point to, like the World Health Organization, that could tell them what was right and wrong.

But the line did not hold for long. Platforms have only continued to impose more and more guardrails on what people can say on their services. They stuck labels all over the place during the US 2020 election. They stepped in with unusual swiftness to downrank or block a story from a major media outlet, the New York Post, about Hunter Biden. They deplatformed Holocaust deniers, QAnon believers, and, eventually, the sitting President of the United States himself.

But, as the article notes -- especially on topics where we're learning new stuff every day, and early ideas and thinking may prove incorrect later -- it's proven that relying on content moderation to deal with these issues might not be that great an idea.

The chaos of 2020 shattered any notion that there’s a clear category of harmful “misinformation” that a few powerful people in Silicon Valley must take down, or even that there’s a way to distinguish health from politics. Last week, for instance, Facebook reversed its policy and said it will no longer take down posts claiming Covid-19 is human-made or manufactured. Only a few months ago

The New York Times had cited belief in this “baseless” theory as evidence that social media had contributed to an ongoing “reality crisis.” There was a similar back-and-forth with masks. Early in the pandemic, Facebook banned ads for them on the site. This lasted until June, when the WHO finally changed its guidance to recommend wearing masks, despite many experts advising it much earlier. The good news, I guess, is they weren’t that effective at enforcing the ban in the first place. (At the time, however, this was not seen as good news.)

She separately highlights how these efforts in the US are being used as an excuse for authoritarian governments around the globe to ramp up actual censorship and suppression of activists and dissident voices.

But the key point is that sweeping larger societal issues under the rug by hiding them doesn't solve the underlying issues.

“Just delete things” removes content but not its cause. It’s tempting to think that we can content-moderate society to a happier and healthier information environment or that the worst social disruptions of the past few years could have been prevented if more posts had just been taken down. But fixing social and political problems will be much harder work than tapping out a few lines of better code. Platforms will never be able to fully compensate for other institutional failures.

There's a lot more in Douek's write-up, but I think it's important for anyone who is debating the content moderation space to have read this piece and to at least account for it in any of these debates and discussions. It is not saying not to do any moderation. It is not saying that we should throw up our hands and do nothing. But it is making the very, very important point that content moderation alone does not solve underlying social issues, and yet so much of the focus on questions around social media and content moderation really are discussions about those failures. And we're not going to make progress on any of these issues if people don't understand what's the symptom and what's the actual disease.

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Filed Under: content moderation, government failures, institutional failures, societal issues


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  • identicon
    Glenn, 25 Jun 2021 @ 9:46am

    Politicians spend most of their time hiding from issues, except the ones that they get big donations to "fix" (as in "cheat" not "repair"). Social media provides a forum for people to talk about how much politicians fail to serve the people (beyond those that contribute "bigly" to their campaigns). It's all about fear and envy. Same for their fear and envy of "Big Tech."

    Tech is just tech. Everyone uses tech, so it's popular. Tech is big because it's popular, not from anything specific that tech companies do. They just provide services that everyone uses, except apparently most politicians (maybe they're just too dumb?).

    If only politicians accepted their responsibilities instead of trying to hide from them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Rocky, 25 Jun 2021 @ 10:32am

      Re:

      If only politicians accepted their responsibilities instead of trying to hide from them.

      But that's the problem, if they took their responsibilities to the public seriously they would have to do unpopular things which can threaten their re-election in the future. It's much easier to pander to the the public and their voters.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Jun 2021 @ 10:43am

      Re:

      "If only politicians accepted their responsibilities instead of trying to hide from them."

      Politicians are not interested in solving problems. Why solve them when you can grandstand and pander? As far as they're concerned, they "Did Something" TM and can use it as a means to fund their reelection even if what they voted for did nothing to solve said problem or in most cases, made it worse.

      Other times they refuse to tackle real problems plaguing society in favor of made-up ones like their particular viewpoint being "censored", etc.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 25 Jun 2021 @ 11:07am

    Moderation here I come!!

    hxxps://forgottenhistory.net/2019/06/11/teddy-bear-is-a-menace-to-nation/

    Its a well known, to anyone paying attention, failing of humans.
    This thing had to have been caused by an outside force & if its new & different it is bad!!

    This panders to people who don't want to accept that people have free will & that while it might lure them down the primrose path they decided to walk down it.
    If not for X, they never would have done these things...
    If not for the toys in happy meals, my child wouldn't be fat.

    It appeals on so many levels because it identifies something well outside of anyones control as the cause of all the problems & absolved people of responsibility for their own choices.

    Notice how no one has written an OpEd about how Congress should get their own shit in order first about Covid misinformation?
    I mean we paid to vaccinate congress people who are STILL to this day trying to downplay it and make statements that will lead to more deaths... but people are screaming that the platforms need to do more to stop the bad information when out leadership can't even reach a consensus on if Covid 19 kills people.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Chozen (profile), 25 Jun 2021 @ 11:08am

    Then stop!

    We should not have the CEO of Facebook e-mailing "Tony" personally and offering him the ability for Tony to censor his critics and giving him his personal cell phone number. Tony is an agent of the government and shouldn't be using back channels and personal phone numbers of Big Tech CEOs to get what he wants.

    This buddy buddy relationship between titans of industry and government bureaucrats and politicians is another symptom of a failed social policy.

    What we saw with the lab leek was pure corruption. It wasn't a mistake. Fauci was e-mailing Daszak the very same day he was told the virus may have been engineered referencing papers that credited the NIH for funding gain of function research. Fauci was then able to leverage the buddy buddy relationship with Zuckerberg to have his narrative be the dominant narrative. It was also the self serving narrative because funding gain of function research prior to 2017 was illegal.

    We dont have the government that exists in the Constitution. We have a government that largely functions through exchanges between bureaucrats and staffers and over drinks at a foggy bottom bar.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Toom1275 (profile), 26 Jun 2021 @ 12:10pm

      Re:

      You either need less meth, or more thorazine.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Jun 2021 @ 3:39pm

      Re:

      “What we saw with the lab leek...”

      I could really go for some potato and lab leek soup right about now.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Chozen (profile), 28 Jun 2021 @ 6:44am

        Re: Re: Yes It was a Pangolin

        Yes a Pangolin had sex with a bat it couldn't have possibly be the research facility where in 2016 Dr. Peter Daszak, the same guy who led the WHO investigation into the lab, was crediting his colleagues for making 'real killer' corona virus through gain of function research.

        Its not like this guy who was facing real jail time for violating the ban on funding of gain of function research would lie to protect himself. He is a doctor after all and that means he is a perfect and moral human being.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 25 Jun 2021 @ 11:20am

    The human subject.

    why not ask, Why?
    Why dont the politicians ASK US, what needs to be done?
    They dont want to care, they think they were hired to do a job, but AS they get into congress, they see Nothing has much meaning for the people.
    How long ago has it been since most of us, had to deal with the gov. even sending a letter to talk to them.
    For some odd reason we think them Knowledgeable. But how and why?

    Anyone seen those sites that Are supposed to create petitions? Do you think congress or many people even go there now? How many have been sent to congress? How many acted on?

    Much of the stuff on the net is a conglomeration of Everything rolled up into a ball, and SOME think thats a bad thing. But it Shows how people ARE in life. Its not hiding in a rich mansion or running out tot he woods to avoid the world. Its seeing Us, as we are. it Shows us WHAT we have become. That the Old stuff we tried to leave behind is still there, and always will be. It Shows you the current problems we have today. And it shows you that the Future isnt much different.
    There have been Some that tried to show the world, at least the locals, that Things could change if we change out attitudes about SOME THINGS. Including when we send people to jail, that teaching them and educating them, HELPED. That the old ways Needed a few fixes, as in school figuring out that Many students have Problems also, and this can cause learning problems. Filling schools with 40-60 kids in 1 room Dont help things much. Education in schools was to create workers, NOT thinkers and those really smart students didnt have allot of chance, as they got bored.
    How many jobs are REALLY based on Merit?

    When people have personal problems where can they go? When they have physical problems in our society, where can they go? Its going to cost you allot of money in the USA, just to break an arm, Forget finding a Psych, to talk to you and figure you are abit unstable.

    What can be done to fix things, if TONS of people and companies are pointing out this and that and the other thing? When its better to WATCH and learn the patterns Causing the problems. OR look at every thing, then GO BACK TO SCHOOL to learn what you are seeing, rather then Patching things together and it all falls apart.

    The biggest thing Iv seen from the past tends to be scare tactics. Where cops can always get the person they want. Where we can have TV judges pass Judgements. How many police forces do we have chasing us? Its the old cowboy movies where they always get their man, and they are always right, and the white hat is superior and always wins. Not to question DNA, finger prints on Everything, tooth prints, and shoe size.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jun 2021 @ 12:01pm

    Yes, I sure would love for us to be able to solve our societal issues. It’s a good thing that we can just counter online speech with more speech even harder and that will magically turn people who think Q is real and that Trump will become the President any day now into people who actually give a shit about facts and reason and possess basic human compassion, amirite? It’s a good thing that there aren’t any bad-actor websites out there like 4chan and 8kun that act like incubators for hate and disinfo campaigns that then gain ever-more traction once disseminated on social media, amirite? All we need to do is tell Mitch McConnell that he’s wrong and he’ll instantly have his heart grow three sizes and go along with Democrat legislation that’s meant to target those societal issues and fix them. /s

    For real though: On the GOP side we have a cult fueled by misinformation and hate and wanting anybody that isn’t a cis hetero white person to die, and they aren’t responsive to logic of any kind, and on the Dem side we have people who by and large want our societal issues to be solved, but they disagree at times on how to get there and their goals are held back by a couple of assholes who are Dems in name only and may just flip their party alignment next year to fuck everyone over even more.

    The idea that all politicians are just “grandstanding” when one side is blatantly evil and the other is trying its best to get work done in spite of constant obstruction reads like the kind of uninterested-in-real-progress “both sides are stupid” “Turd Sandwich vs. Giant Douche” drivel that you’d see on shit like South Park.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Jun 2021 @ 8:31am

      Re:

      So who gets to be Minister of Truth?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 28 Jun 2021 @ 10:41pm

        Re: Re:

        Nobody. Idiots getting kicked out of private property for being obnoxious idiots still have platforms from which to be idiots, they just can't co-opt people who don't want them there no matter how popular they are.

        Come back and whine when the government does something instead of private citizens telling violent conspiracy nutters not to use their property.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jun 2021 @ 1:14pm

    I have to agree with all of that. Social media is a cross-section of humanity. Sweeping the "bad" people and their "wrong" opinions under the rug won't make them disappear or change their minds. On the contrary, it gives credence to silly conspiracy theories claiming "The Man" is censoring people to hide some big secret.

    In order to effect real change, it is necessary to to engage with and educate people, not just declare them "evil" and try to exclude them from society. That just makes them worse.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 26 Jun 2021 @ 12:48am

      Re:

      Of course, some people simply don't want to be engaged with or educated. That being said, you can generally tell right away if you're dealing with one of those people.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 26 Jun 2021 @ 3:00am

      Re:

      "Sweeping the "bad" people and their "wrong" opinions under the rug won't make them disappear or change their minds"

      However, it does reduce the likelihood that they will hire new recruits and feed them disinformation that grows the numbers in the cult. This is the problem we see on social media - raving Q Anon lunatics often didn't start as lunatics, they were recruited into the cult and brainwashed. Last time I checked, we tried stopping people from entering cults.

      "it is necessary to to engage with and educate people"

      We tried that with Trump. After seeing him dismantle the country and help cause the deaths of 500k people, they said "great jorb, more plz!". We tried that with Brexit. After dismissing all valid concerns as "Project Fear", they're now trying everything they can to blame the destruction they wrought on the EU.

      Next time, I'd prefer it if we stopped these people from breeding their misinformation, rather than sitting back and watching their depressingly predictable consequences play out again.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 28 Jun 2021 @ 8:32am

        Re: Re:

        You'd think the person who coined the term Streisand Effect would realize the political nightmare that results from calling someone's beliefs "wrong" and in need of "moderation" (censorship), "for the [idiot] user's own good."

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          PaulT (profile), 28 Jun 2021 @ 10:37pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          "calling someone's beliefs "wrong""

          Some people are demonstrably wrong. They are often the sort of the people who don't base their belief on facts and choose to venture into an alternate reality to pretend they are right, but they are demonstrably wrong.

          "in need of "moderation" (censorship)"

          Moderation is not censorship. Whine back at us when the government is doing something.

          That's not to say that Streisand can't still be in effect, but "stop being a twat on my property" is not censorship. Better to kick them out than allow their lies to fester.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Jun 2021 @ 12:52am

    Here in Australia our government just passed an "Online Safety Bill" which has been framed by the media as an anti-trolling bill (though it does much more outside of that). This article pretty much nails what's wrong with that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Jun 2021 @ 8:34am

    In the 1990s there was a huge, temporary divorce spike caused by the internet having made the global sexual marketplace much more efficient.

    The internet unmasks problems, though this doesn't mean Section 230 shouldn't be eliminated.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 28 Jun 2021 @ 10:39pm

      Re:

      " this doesn't mean Section 230 shouldn't be eliminated."

      Do you have a sane, based in reality, reason why it should be? Or, are you another fiction peddler?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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