from the oh-come-on dept
I have a browser open with about a dozen different bad and wrong takes on Section 230 that one day I may write about, but on Sunday night, 60 Minutes jumped to the head of the line with an utterly ridiculous moral panic filled with false information on Section 230. The only saving grace of the program was that at least they spoke with Jeff Kosseff, author of the book on Section 230 (which is an excellent read). However, you can tell from the way they used Jeff that someone in the editorial meeting decided “huh, we should probably find someone to be the “other” side of this debate, so we can pretend we’re even-handed” and then sprinkled in Jeff to explain the basics of the law (which they would then ignore in the rest of the report).
It’s almost difficult to describe just how bad the 60 Minutes segment is. It is, quite simply, blatant disinformation. I guess somewhat ironically, much of the attack on 230 talks about how that law is responsible for disinformation. Which is not true. Other than, perhaps, this very report that is itself pure disinformation.
What’s most astounding about the piece is that almost everything it discusses has nothing to do with Section 230. As with so many 230 stories, 60 Minutes producers actually seem upset about the 1st Amendment and various failures by law enforcement. And somehow… that’s the fault of Section 230. It’s somewhat insane to see a news organization like 60 Minutes basically go on an all-out assault on the 1st Amendment.
The central stories in the piece involve people who (tragically!) have been harassed online. One case involves a woman that was falsely blamed by some nutjob conspiracy theorists of having brought COVID-19 to the United States. Because of that, she and her family received death threats, which is absolutely terrible, but has nothing to do with Section 230. 60 Minutes points out that law enforcement didn’t care and said that the death threats weren’t enough of a crime. But… uh… then shouldn’t 60 Minutes be focused on the failures of law enforcement to deal with threats (which actually can be a crime if they fall into the category of “true threats”)? Instead, somehow this is Section 230’s fault? How?
And it gets worse. 60 Minutes trots out the bogeyman of “anonymous internet trolls,” even though this comes right after 60 Minutes shows that the nutjob conspiracy theorist who started this has a name and is well known (as a nutjob conspiracy theorist). The whole setup here is bizarre. The death threats are awful, and if they are criminal, then the problem is with the police and the FBI who the show says did nothing. If they’re not criminal, then they’re not breaking the law. So, the reason there’s “no one to sue” is not because of Section 230, but because no laws were broken. But that’s not how 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley frames it.
Right about now you might be thinking, they should sue. But that’s the problem. They can’t file hundreds of lawsuits against internet trolls hiding behind aliases. And they can’t sue the internet platforms because of that law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Written before Facebook or Google were invented, Section 230 says, in just 26 words, that internet platforms are not liable for what their users post.
Over and over again, the report blames Section 230 for all of this. Incredibly, at the end of the report, they admit that the video from that nutjob conspiracy theorist was taken down from YouTube after people complained about it. In other words Section 230 did exactly what it was supposed to do in enabling YouTube to pull down videos like that. But, of course, unless you watch the entire 60 Minutes segment, you’ll miss that, and still think that 230 is somehow to blame.
The second half is basically more of the same. It talks about two more unfortunate stories that actually suggest Section 230 is working correctly. The first involves Lenny Pozner, who has been fighting back against insane conspiracy theorists who have gone after him since his son was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. But, again, Pozner’s story shows that Section 230… works? After going on for a few moments about how legitimately awful Pozner’s situation is, Pelley reveals that Facebook, YouTube and others have been super responsive to Pozner and are quick to pull down information that he, and a non-profit he set up, flag as problematic. The segment talks about how Pelley sent an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, and then admits that since then Facebook has been super responsive:
After the letter, a Facebook manager called Pozner.
Lenny Pozner: It began a relationship with Facebook that helped them learn about the material that is being posted on their platform and how it is abusive, defamatory
Scott Pelley: Have you seen a difference, a practical difference in Facebook?
Lenny Pozner: Yes, it’s almost all gone.
So, um, why are we blaming Section 230 again? It sounds like the system is working. The same is true in the next story. Andy Parker, the father of the tragically murdered Alison Parker — a reporter who was murdered by a fired co-worker live on air in the middle of an interview. Parker has wanted those videos off of social media. And… that’s basically what happened.
Lenny Pozner flagged Alison Parker videos for YouTube to remove.
YouTube wrote us, “There is no place on YouTube for content that exploits this horrendous act, and we’ve spent the last several years investing in tools and policies to quickly remove it.” YouTube told us it now prioritizes all requests from Pozner’s HONR Network.
But 60 Minutes says this is proof that the platforms moderation doesn’t work?
Andy Parker: I really expected them to do the right thing. their motto was, “Don’t be evil.” And for a while, they did a pretty good job of it. But now, they are the personification of evil.
Huh? What? But…?
That’s when the report finally admits that the first couple profiled, falsely blamed for bringing COVID-19 to the US, also were successful in getting the video pulled down. And… then they still blame Section 230 — the same Section 230 that enables YouTube to pull down those videos:
Scott Pelley: Based on what you’ve had to learn about all of these things, what do you think the solution could be?
Matt Benassi: This is really, really hard, right? ‘Cause Section 230. When that was written, it was probably done with the intent that social media companies would police themselves in some manner. And social media companies haven’t done that very well.
Except… the segment shows they did police themselves.
And then the segment ends in the most bizarre fashion, trying to at least nod towards the point that Section 230 being revoked would completely change the internet, but… I mean… this is just word salad:
But making social media liable would also mean Facebook, Twitter, even Wikipedia and Yelp, couldn’t exist as we know them. President-elect Biden wants to revoke Section 230. The federal government is already suing to break up Facebook and Google. No one can say what social media 2.0 will look like or whether the innocent will ever be protected from a world wide web of lies.
What do the antitrust lawsuits have to do with Section 230? Why mention that? It’s a total non sequitur. And getting rid of Section 230 does not “protect the innocent from a world wide web of lies.” Because most lies are protected by the 1st Amendment, not 230. And in the rare cases they are not, that’s an issue for law enforcement, not Section 230.
It’s really becoming difficult to not believe that major media companies are, themselves, choosing to air blatant anti-internet propaganda. You may recall that one of the revelations from the Sony hack a few years back was that the big movie studios got together to plot out a strategy for undermining the internet, which included using media properties they own to run a smear campaign of reports and articles. Whether or not that’s the intention, it certainly has the same effect here. CBS provides no disclaimer about the fact that it is owned by Viacom, one of the companies who was involved in that plot.
Nor does 60 Minutes note that its own site is protected by Section 230. Nor does the segment point out that Section 230 protects free speech online and protects users themselves. The brief clip of Jeff Kosseff just gives a basic description of part of the law, but not any of the important nuance (that Jeff knows and explains literally every day).
It’s pure propaganda. And it’s an online piece that seems to be suggesting (falsely) that without 230, we’d no longer have misinformation online. It’s bonkers.
And, finally, it’s insane that a news organization like CBS, which has faced many defamation cases over the years, is more or less promoting more defamation cases. I’ve never quite seen anything like it. But CBS/Viacom and 60 Minutes should be ashamed of putting on this garbage. It’s not informing people. It’s misinforming them.