January 12th, 2021

Trump Dumped by Social Media – No Problem

Picture via CNET

It took a number of years, but Twitter finally dumped Donald Trump from its platform. So too for Facebook. Too much hate. Too much violence. The insurrection at the Capitol was the final straw.

There have been many commentators saying that this is a problem. My opinion, dumping Trump and any others that spew hatred and foment violence is most assuredly not a problem.

First, we will dispense with the First Amendment argument. There is none. These are private businesses and the First Amendment restricts what the government can do. The principles involved for me dumping a comment or commenter are no different than Big Tech. Big Tech and Small Tech have the same fundamental issue, albeit at different scale.

If you spew hate, or spam, or simply write crap I don’t like, then poof, you’re gone. My blog, my rules. If you don’t like it don’t come here. Same with Big Tech.

This deplatforming of a President, however, struck a nerve with folks, for no reason other than he is a President, at least for a few more days.

Over at Bloomberg, Joe Nocera claims that this is as problem, in that a few people in charge of Big Tech have too much power:

Do you really want Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai deciding which speech is acceptable and which is not on their platforms — platforms that are now indistinguishable from the public space. In addition to the problem of having so much power concentrated in so few hands, they are simply not very good at it. Their rules are vague, change constantly and are ignored often if the user is prominent enough.

He comes around to a solution — destroying Section 230 protections:

 I have come around to an idea that the right has been clamoring for — and which Trump tried unsuccessfully to get Congress to approve just weeks ago. Eliminate Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. That is the provision that shields social media companies from legal liability for the content they publish — or, for that matter, block.

He then admits that this would merely result in the problematic posters such as Trump being neutered anyway. After all, without 230 protections, the platform could conceivably be liable for the misconduct of posters. Nocera just thinks the neutering is a good thing:

In fact, once the social media companies have to assume legal liability — not just for libel, but for inciting violence and so on — they will quickly change their algorithms to block anything remotely problematic. People would still be able to discuss politics, but they wouldn’t be able to hurl anti-Semitic slurs. Presidents and other officials could announce policies, but they wouldn’t be able to spin wild conspiracies.

This is a terrible idea for reasons that I discussed last month — Section 230 is the lifeblood of interactive communications. Without 230, you would never read a negative review of any restaurant, hotel or widget. Negative reviews would be met with threats of litigation and the platform is not in a position to determine the truth/falsity of the review. And with politics, there are a bazillion shades of gray all wrapped up in contextual statements.

Twitter and Facebook are hardly the only platforms Trump has to speak on. He has the presidential podium, after all, and can speak freely from it.

And even when he is gone from office — and he will be gone — Trump could call up any journalists in the world and have conversations with them. Who would say no? Whether you love him or despise him you’d certainly like to get answers to questions. Recorded, of course.

And those remarks would get rebroadcast by others. On Twitter. On Facebook. And in a million newspapers, magazines, news shows, blogs, bulletin boards, etc. And it would happen almost instantaneously.

The only difference is that Twitter/Facebook would not be primary sources, but secondary.

Prof. Eugene Volokh, raises concerns in a New York Times op-ed. He writes that while there are plenty of places to speak, Twitter and Facebook are matchless:

 there are hundreds of newspapers throughout the nation and several major TV networks. Facebook and Twitter have no major rivals in their media niches. The public relies on them as matchless mechanisms for unfiltered communication, including politicians’ communications with their constituents.

But this likewise misses that social media is, in very large part, about rebroadcasting the thoughts and opinions of others. If Trump (or any other dumped commenter) says anything worth repeating, it will be repeated on those platforms. By someone. Whether the ideas are rebroadcast widely would be determined merely by their level of interest. The same as me. And you.

A final thought: No one claims it is easy to moderate these platforms, or any forum with a lot of discussion.

It’s hard to do and virtually impossible to come up with any kind of objective criteria. The words themselves often obscure the context, as we will see in the upcoming impeachment debate over Trump directing people to march on the Capitol.

Want to know why it’s hard? Consider this easy example. In one context, Trump says “March on the Capitol!” to an angry group of armed insurrectionists. In another, Mahatma Gandhi says “March to the salt flats to make salt.” One is an implicit call for violence, implicit because Trump has a long history of advocating violence. The other comes from someone with a long history of advocating peace.

Context matters. And it defies artificial intelligence decisions that merely look at the words. Let Big Tech (and Small Tech) do as they please with respect to dumping/keeping posters. Keep government out of it.

(Full disclosure: I own stock in Twitter, having bought it after Trump was sworn in, figuring that four years of free advertising couldn’t hurt.)

 

April 16th, 2018

Should the Disruptive CUNY Students Be Punished?

Last week I wrote about a group of students at CUNY Law who decided to disrupt the First Amendment speech of Prof. Josh Blackman. They didn’t like the way he thinks laws and the constitution should be interpreted, so they figured if they could shout him down this would magically change the way laws and the constitution get interpreted.

It didn’t go well for the students, and they’ve been widely widely ridiculed regarding their conduct. And yeah, the talk was to be about free speech, of all things.

But Prof. Eugene Volokh of UCLA Law — also the founder and longtime editor of group law blog The Volokh Conspiracy — has this interesting thought about whether these students should be punished:

The protest, I think, shows a narrow-mindedness on the students’ part, and an unwillingness to listen to substantive argument. But the heckling, which seems like an organized attempt to keep Blackman from speaking, is something much worse — something that universities ought to punish, and that I would think many universities would indeed punish, at least in other situations.

But the question of punishment is twofold: For even if you think they should be metaphorically spanked, the question remains as to constitutes suitable punishment. A punishment must, after all, fit the crime.

So here’s my two rupees on the subject. The answer to the first question is an easy yes. An organized effort to silence a speaker is a major no-no, not just for any university students, but especially for law students. They should know better.

And the “punishment” should be compulsory participation in CUNY’s Moot Court program, which exists as a competition among students.

For those non-lawyers reading here, the usual moot court format is for a legal problem to be given and a team of students to write a brief. One student might handle an issue of whether the case is properly in this court (jurisdiction) while another might handle the substantive part (i.e. Is it constitutionally protected speech if a person does xyz?).

The Moot Court room at SUNY Buffalo, my alma mater.

But this is the kicker, and the reason it’s such a valuable teaching tool: The students argue the side that they briefed on day one, but the next day must argue the other side. And they do it before a panel of “judges” that are busy firing questions at them as if in an appellate court. It’s the closest, most realistic, experience to an actual courtroom that a student will have in law school.

The requirement of arguing both sides forces the students to look at problems in a more objective light. It may force students to make arguments that run contrary to their own feelings about how a law should be read. It will force students to look at the warts of their own arguments, as almost all arguments have warts someplace.

Without an ability to understand all sides of an issue, it’s impossible for practicing lawyers to give objective advice to their clients — and that is what we get paid to do. This forces the issue to the forefront.

The moot court competition law school was, for me, the single most valuable experience of my academic experience. It did more to turn me from a student into a lawyer than anything else.

Those students that were disruptive — and it is yelling and screaming that are disruptive, not holding signs no matter how inane they may  be  — clearly have not yet learned enough about the law if they are acting out the way they did. They are not even close to ready for their legal careers and representing people.

While it may be easy to think some other, more traditional, type of punishment should be administered, the question any laws school should ask is, “What will make them better lawyers?”

And ten years later, they will send thank you notes to the administrators that made them do it and the professors that oversaw the program.