The freedom of speech dilemma

The new documentary movie, “The Social Dilemma,” is about social media companies whose business plan is addiction.   We discussed it in the drop-in discussion group of First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., last Tuesday.

This is a real problem I’ve written about myself, and little of what was presented is new to me.

The Internet itself has inherent addictive aspects, to begin with.  Social media companies use artificial intelligence and behavioral psychology to make their offerings more addictive. 

They combine AI and psychological expertise with surveillance technology to target individuals who are susceptible to certain types of advertising and propaganda.

Since their aim is “engagement,” it is more profitable to generate fear and anger than contentment because the negative emotions have more impact.  For the same reason, it often is more profitable to steer people to sensational fake news than dull but accurate news.

All this is generally understood[Update 1/30/2021. Then again, the movie itself may be an example of what it complains of.]

So why are there so many calls for the social media companies to take on the role of Internet censors?  If Facebook and Google are the sources of the problem, what qualifies their employees to decide which news sites I should see and which I shouldn’t?

It is not as if they have given up on a business model in which profits are made by enabling propaganda by exploiting surveillance and addiction.

What the social media companies seem to be doing is cracking down on everybody—right, left or off the spectrum—who dissents from the official view.

Experts quoted in the film say that, because of the social media companies, there is no agreement on what is true and what isn’t, and they also say the very concept of objective truth is disappearing. 

But these are two very different things.  It is not only possible, but very common, to have agreement based on lies or false beliefs. 

There was an official consensus in 2002, supported by, among others, the New York Times, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. 

As a result of those lies, thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East lost their lives; millions became homeless refugees. 

Popular journalists who questioned the WMD lies, such as Phil Donahue, were canceled.  They have never been rehabilitated. 

Those who went along with the lies flourished.  They have paid no penalty, even in reputation.

The consequences of the WMD lie were many times greater than the Pizzagate conspiracy theory lie.  Spreading the Pizzagate story endangered innocent lives, I’m not trying to justify it, but, in fact, nobody died as a result.

More recently the so-called mainstream media spread baseless claims that Donald Trump is a secret agent of Vladimir Putin.  Trump is many bad things, but that charge was absurd.  The media also spread baseless claims to smear Julian Assange.

Maybe you doubt the Russiagate and Assange claims were fake news.  Fair enough.  But how can you be sure if you don’t have access to the arguments on the other side?

What most critics of the social media companies, including the producers of the movie, don’t get is that there is one thing worse than producing competing versions of reality that nobody can agree on.

The worse thing is the social media companies working hand-in-hand with government to produce a common propaganda version of reality based on official lies.  This is what is going on right now.

If liberals or progressives think a government and corporate crackdown on “fake news” is going to be limited to actual white supremacists or neo-Nazis, they are very naive.

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The social dilemma is a real dilemma.  The Google search engine is a great resource for information-seekers.  Facebook enables families and friends to connect in new and easy ways.  YouTube is a great resource for, among other things, how-to information.

I could do without all of them if I had to, but I don’t want to.  So what should be done?

One obvious first step is to enforce the anti-trust laws.  There is no reason why Google should own YouTube or Facebook should own Instagram or WhatsApp.

Digital privacy laws being enacted in Europe may help solve.  Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of VIrginia, has proposed a tax on data collection

He also proposed Congress enact a law to restrict the reach of targeted political advertising so that any political ad be seen by every voter in his district.

VIrtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier suggested a new business model—one based on making micro-payments for services, not on “free” services based on information-mining. 

Maybe the social media companies will have to be made into regulated utilities for any of these things to happen.  This can be done.  It was done in the case of the Bell telephone system (AT&T).

What is the responsibility of social media companies for news content?  They are not in fact like a telephone company, a neutral conduit by which individuals communicate.  They influence what we read and see.

Person of the Year 2010

But they are not like newspapers and broadcasters, which have the means and responsibility to review every word they print or broadcast.  Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are so big that it is not possible to review everything that appears on their platforms before it goes on-line.

Congress recognized the problem with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.  It exempted social media companies from the laws of libel and obscenity that apply to newspapers provided they made a good-faith effort to regulate themselves.

Facebook complies with the act by using Artificial Intelligence algorithms to flag possibly objectionable material, which is then reviewed by content moderators.  Content moderation being a cost and not a generator of revenue, the content moderators are poorly paid and stretched then.

I’m not sure repealing Section 230 is a good idea.  I agree there needs to be some form of content moderation to weed out incitements to violence, child pornography and the like.  I don’t agree with content moderation to weed out “radical ideologies,” as some advocate.

I think Facebook and other social media companies should upgrade the quality, quantity and pay of their content moderators.  This would be a good job for unemployed journalists.  They should have clear rules for what is acceptable content. 

When an item is taken down, they should explain which rule is violated and how.  The decision should be open to appeal to the courts on the ground the company has failed to follow its own rules.

I admit this isn’t an ideal answer or even a very clear one, but this is an age-old problem.  It applies to every means of communicating ideas and information—broadcasting, newspapers, printed books, even rumors. 

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Douglas Mackay was published in 1840.  Freedom to search for the truth always involves the danger of falling into error.

The very worst thing you can do is decide that the problem lies not with the social media companies, but with the principle of free speech itself—and give company employees the mission to decide the limits of speech.

Also, remember that, as Edward Snowden has warned us, every bit of personal information scooped up by social media companies is available to the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies of the government.

LINKS

The Free, Diverse Internet in America Is Coming to an End by Ian Welsh.

The Pendulum of Internet Censorship Swings Leftward Again by Caitlin Johnstone.

Conservatives are running out of social media options | Is it a violation of their free speech rights? by Jeff Perrott for Deseret News.

The Social Dilemma? Nope. Just Silicon Valley propaganda by Yasha Levine, author of Surveillance Valley. [Added 1/30/2021]

The best way to protect free speech on social media is to promote competition by Jillian C. York for MIT Technology Review.

Crime Shouldn’t Pay: Why Big Tech Executives Should Face Jail by Matt Stoller on BIG.

AI won’t relieve the misery of Facebook’s content moderators by James Vincent for The Verge.

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[Update 1/30/2021]  Evidently there are ways to post on the Internet without being easily vulnerable to takedown.  Click on FreeNetBeaker Browser, Technology Learning Collective and ZeroNet, links to web sites all taken from this article on It’s Going Down.

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5 Responses to “The freedom of speech dilemma”

  1. Michael Scott Says:

    Don’t hold your breath on micropayments. The idea has been around since the ’90s, and has gone nowhere. It’s technically challenging, it creates yet another form of digital tracking, and it doesn’t do anything to address the perverse incentive to keep people glued to the screen as much as possible. Personally, I would like to see much wider and deeper adoption of subscription models. Many newspapers have gone part way, by erecting paywalls that cover some of their costs, while continuing to display a large number of ads. Regulation to prohibit micro-targeting of ads would encourage greater adoption of the subscription model, reduce the fragmentation of the citizenry into echo chambers, and tamp down (but not eliminate) the incentives around maximizing screen time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      Not everybody can afford a subscription service, but then again, not everyone can afford a subscription to the New York Times.

      If there were a subscription service, schools and public libraries should subscribe to make services available to the entire public.

      Like

  2. fgsjr2015 Says:

    Its notable flaws notwithstanding, social media has enabled far greater non-gate-keeping information freedom — particularly in regards to corporate environmental degradation — than that by what had been a news-monopoly mainstream news-media, including those of print.

    The mainstream news-media have lost both information control (e.g. story parameterization) and, perhaps most problematic for them, advertisement revenue to popular social media platforms.

    Though I don’t know his opinion of social media in general, renowned American author and linguistic/cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky noted that while there are stories published about man-made global warming, “It’s as if … there’s a kind of a tunnel vision — the science reporters are occasionally saying ‘look, this is a catastrophe,’ but then the regular [non-environmental pro-fossil fuel] coverage simply disregards it.”

    Although it’s a couple decades late, I believe that progressive movements are far more effective with the unprecedented informative and organizational abilities made widely available by social media.

    I also noticed that many news outlets that criticize social media will still use Facebook as the sole means by which readers can comment on posted articles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      Yes, the Internet (not just social media) provides a great means for those of us who want progressive social change to gain access to information and communicate with each other.

      Thanks to the Internet, I have this blog, the ability to communicate with people all over the world and easy access to information and ideas that otherwise would be closed to me.

      At the same time, the Internet (not just social media) provides strong new tools to the powers that be to keep us under surveillance and to manipulate us.

      At the present time, there are two main problems.

      One is the use of surveillance technology, behavior modification techniques and artificial intelligence to manipulate us for purposes of advertising and political propaganda.

      This is often abetted by the irresponsible spread of inflammatory, exaggerated and sometimes false news in order to hold viewers’ attention. This is the problem discussed in “The Social Network” documentary movie.

      The other, which I emphasize in my post, is censorship of dissenting views by the holders of economic and political power.

      Freedom of speech on the Internet is not something to be taken for granted. It requires a constant struggle.

      None of this is new. With any form of communication, there is a question of who controls the means of communication, whose interests they service and what limits they set.

      Like

      • fgsjr2015 Says:

        I pretty much agree.

        It seems to me that while the Internet remains mostly a free domain—which one can observe when an innocent person has embarrassingly revealing photos of him/her, including famous actors, posted but cannot have them removed regardless of great attempts—big business entities can simply purchase thus control large swaths of what goes up in the Internet (e.g. Internet company ownership).

        We see this, though perhaps in relatively small significance, through Google being allowed to sell automatic access to the top of its first search-engine page.

        Like

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