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Now that we are post-insurrection (can that be said?), and the tech companies rush to put the genie back in the bottle, it is quite obvious that social media was very much to blame. How did social media lead to the murderous rioting, pillaging and desecration inside our most hallowed halls of democracy? Let me count the ways.

  1. Bad Algorithms that favor sensational content – pushing us to incredible extremes. 
  2. Maybe this should be #1)? The lack of clear authority on the Internet and the tendency to give authority to those who confirm our views. 
  3. Bad Algorithms that feed us information supporting our beliefs rather than challenging them, condemning us to live forever inside our filter bubbles. 
  4. The binary nature of computer code living inside the 1 & 0’s, desensitizing us from any kind of compromise, seeing only black or white, cup full or cup empty, democrat or republican, atheist or fervent believer, never grey. And forget any sort of nuance.
  5. Consumerism and the selling of America.

Do we have to give up on the purity and inalienable rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion in order to preserve our fragile liberal democracy? Or has the tide of disinformation grown into such a tsunami of crap that no amount of moderation could ever contain it?

It is worthwhile to note the hypocrisy of the Super Religious Nutjobs who hold that secularism is the root of all evil, that Christianity trumps all (pun intended), that individuals should not be choosing any sort of way forward. They definitely should not have what former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy deemed the heart of liberty in a 1992 decision to uphold Roe v. Wade:

“the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

The Nutjobs think that decisions about the mysteries of life are better left to the special wisdom of Church elders, people who hide behind a shield of religious freedom and freedom of speech while actively constructing authoritarian worlds that deny outsiders these same liberties. This hypocrisy is illuminated by the cozy relationship between evangelicals and Trump. The religious right will put up with just about anything, all sorts of lying, cheating, divorce and just plain evil (Trump’s sublime assault on the Capitol Building notwithstanding), in order to further the lot of “The Good Christians”.

I bring this up to offer context around how social media algorithms are pushing us to extremes. Make no mistake, many of these extremes are religious in nature. If there is any kind of conspiracy behind any of this, it’s forces that want us to close down our very American concepts of freewill and freedom of religion and freedom from religion and cloak it all in some sort of high state of evangelism. Really it’s all just desire for power. The evangelicals want it. Trump wants it too.

Another cozy relationship with Trump is the Falun Gong. Who? You know, that Chinese religious sect that trades in a kind of simplified comic book Buddhism. The Chinese government hates them, calls them a cult and puts them in “re-training” camps and such. Some say on the edges of the civilized net that the government kills many of them in these camps and harvests their organs. But I digress. 

The really weird thing about the Falun Gong is that they are rabid Trump supporters who are in the top 10 of ad spenders on Facebook. Sometimes the top 5 (although many of their accounts were banned in 2019). They came to America, housed their leader (who claims to walk through walls) on a farm in upstate NY and started a news service called The Epoch Times. Well, they hate communism, abortion, homosexuality (not sure of the order) and Democrats, who they say eat babies and suck blood (sound familiar?). Some say they are Qanon. At the very least they support Q and Trump and they create all sorts of disinformation that led up to last week’s insurrection. 

This extreme content is not isolated to The Epoch Times. We have all seen the claims that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. Twitter and Facebook, among others, have been serving us these lies from an endless stream of questionable sources, and people are taking the click bait. In the uber competitive 21st century attention economy, clicks mean paydays. If nobody profited off of this content, trust me, it would not exist. The commodification of Trump, funded by religious nutjobs of all stripes is only one extreme – there’s money on the other side too. Remember the capitalist appropriation of the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer? “Black lives matter” was turned into a cheeky slogan by Target, Nike and other corporate power mongers who were more interested in publicly opposing what Trump stands for than being held accountable for their own racist practices.

So is it a devil’s bargain to celebrate the dethroning of Trump by Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon? Is this kind of censorship going to come around and bite us in the ass?

Don’t confuse the right of these entities to police what they publish and edit in any way they see fit with siding with these entities to let them do what they will. In fact, this is just the beginning. The BRINK foundation would ask them to take a much greater role in banning hate speech and speech that causes violence. 

We, in fact, would repeal Section 230, a snippet from a 1996 federal law that was meant to protect website owners and  Internet companies from legal liability. (It’s not just us, Trump hates it too.) Effectively clearing them of all responsibility for the content published on their platforms, the section states:

“No provider or user on an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

And with those 26 words begat the Facebook and Twitter we know today and hundreds of other Social Media companies that can flourish by manipulating their users’ unchecked content. Section 230 allows these Internet platforms to make billions of dollars with algorithms that sow discord and incite violence, algorithms that most recently have led to the January 6th insurrection in our Nation’s Capital

Why are Facebook and co. allowed to do this? Should they not be answerable to their content, just like any other news provider from the Wall Street Journal to the Poughkeepsie Times? These rags are all responsible for the pieces they publish, which is why I can trust that the article I just read in the New York Times is most likely credible. Their sources have a clear, tangible authority and I know that they stand behind what they report.

TV networks are the same. They don’t have a convenient back door out of their responsibility for the content they broadcast (other than deep pockets to hire lawyers). Sure, we have Fox and MSNBC at opposing ends of the political spectrum, but we generally know what they are all about. The Murdoch family is not creating misunderstood algorithms. Rachel Maddow shrieks at us the same way every night. We can pretty much set our watches to Tucker Carlson’s lies. 

Welcome to the upside-down world of Internet publishing where profit is king, AI controlled algorithms are running amuck, your data is their data, and the race to extremes is on! We saw on live TV what happens when this networked chaos goes unchecked for too long: the plundering of our democracy by anti-Semetic white supremacists emboldened by a racist, unfit, almost twice-impeached president.

The BRINK Foundation is fighting the chaos that fuels the Internet. Join us. Get on our list to see what we do next and donate to help us fight fire with fire.

Danny Vinik and Molly Ragan, January 13, 2021

Addendum – January 29, 2021

With the Capitol attack fresh on our minds and a rush to get this article posted, we were lazy and glossed over a complex issue. So while our attention turned to Section 230 and the impact it has on Social Media companies, it is overly simplistic to think that simply repealing it would fix the problem.

Because… you know…here in good old America…we have freedom of speech!

We said we would repeal Section 230. What we should have said is that we would in fact, repeal section 230 and then replace it with a statute that would accomplish more of what 230 was meant to accomplish.

When Ron Wyden and Chris Cox wrote the law back in 1996 they said they envisioned it as both “a sword and a shield”. As a shield, the users, not the website that hosts the content, are the ones responsible for what they post. That shield put these companies in business. As a sword, sites can easily take down offensive content, content that very well may be protected by the first amendment, but that most people do not want to experience – like hate speech and white supremacist content. Or tweets that glorify violence. Or…Trump’s Twitter account, entirely…. 

If companies took their responsibility to protect us from ourselves a bit more seriously, maybe we wouldn’t ever have gotten to where we are. Even where we are is debatable. They sure took their sweet time fighting back Trump and his brigades of unhappy white men.

What isn’t debatable is that algorithms are designed to keep us online for as long as possible so that we will click on pages that serve us advertising. These very actions are pushing us all to extremes. Humans like to argue. They like to troll and fight and generally get in the weeds with a lot of marginal crap. The machine learned algorithms gravitate toward conflict as that produces more page hits than general agreement. Very rarely do they care about Section 230, or fighting back with that sword, and for years they seemed complacent enough with the shield protecting them to do virtually nothing to protect their users from getting hurt. 

The real question regarding Section 230, in the US at least, is, “How can we get it to work better?”, How can we get Social Media companies to consistently use the sword? There are many good ideas that need to be legislated and will be legislated as countries around the world fight back and demand that their citizens be given better controls on the sharing of data. Policy reform meant to protect kids and combat screen addiction and create transparency. Pushing toward that reform really does help.

Back in Oct, 2019, Senators Thune, Blumenthal, Moran, Blackburn and Warner presented legislation that would “require that Internet platforms give users the option to engage with a platform without being manipulated by algorithms driven by user-specific data.” This was called the “Filter Bubble Transparency Act”, and of course, it hasn’t passed yet. This means that now more than ever, our support of organizations like BRINK foundation matters. We need to keep pushing to educate policy makers. 

This often means teaching people who barely understand how the Internet works, how it works. Did I mention the average age of a Senator is 62 years old. Some of them can barely use email.

The more we focus, the better the ideas. Ideas regarding virility, (slowing down viral content so it has less effect), and laws that put more teeth on the sword are all on the table. Laws that protect kids, control political ads, beef up national security are all in some stage of development. We all just need to care about this.

So we keep pushing. Keep imagining. Some of us hold out hope that over time the Internet will fix itself with better code: blockchain technologies for storing our data in a way that puts us in the driver’s seat are quite appealing to talk about. The question is how far will these technologies be taken in a capitalist society that places profits above all else?

Understanding Section 230 is the first step toward understanding how the Internet works against us, but there is so much more you need to know. Our job at BRINK Foundation is to keep you educated about all of it because no one else is. Sign up for our newsletter below and follow us on social media to stay informed.

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