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.)


December 2nd, 2020

Section 230 and Me

The late Speaker Tip O’Neill once famously observed that “all politics is local.” I’m not going to argue with that, especially when so many people scream “It’s all about me.”

But I’m not too keen when the press does it. And so the headline in this Washington Post article about Section 230 immunity rankles me:

Section 230 refers to a small portion of the Communications Decency Act that gives immunity to information providers for the things that other people might comment on. The nuts and bolts of it are these 26 words:

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

These 26 words are very broadly interpreted. It means, for example, that if I blog a piece about Joe Shlabotnick inventing a new baseball, and the reader comments devolve into a virtual screaming match about Nazis and accusing each other of crimes, that I am not responsible for what you write. I can’t be sued for defamation over them. Or at least not successfully sued.

I can even take a comment, add headings and illustrations, and elevate it to a guest post and still be immune from being sued for defamation as the publisher. So sayeth New York’s highest court back in 2011 in Shiamili v. The Real Estate Group of New York when a blog did just that.

Without that protection, what is a blogger supposed to do if there are complaints that comments are defamatory? Do an investigation? Conduct discovery? Take depositions? And I supposed to take down a comment merely because someone else says it’s defamatory? How should I know who is telling the truth? Or if the truth is a hybrid of both positions?

This is the stuff that trials are made of after a couple years litigious digging about. Without the protection, the comments are neutered.

All politics is local. The law affects me. And it affects you, should you wish to make comments or simply read them.

Now take my concerns about comments on this humble little blog and magnify them by a bazillion. Because that is what Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. all have to worry about. Demanding perfect moderation of comments is to demand the impossible.

Section 230 is a huge part of the engine that makes the web truly interactive, where you can not only read and write product reviews on Amazon, but also visit a small restaurant or hotel in Ottumwa, Iowa while visiting your old friend Radar. And then leave comments for future visitors on Yelp or Trip Advisor, and those web sites don’t have to fact-check your comment about the rude conduct of the waiter or desk clerk for accuracy. Because such moderation would be impossible.

Now Trump is threatening to veto a defense bill because he doesn’t like section 230. I won’t pretend that he actually understands the significance of it, but you should. And “tech giants” is only a part.

Perhaps he merely knows that when he incessantly spins fictitious conspiracy tales of election fraud that Twitter labels them as disputed. Trump, as everyone knows, is a Twitter addict. He thrives on being able to spew on it. And he clearly isn’t happy that Twitter itself is fact-checking him, so perhaps he just wants to get back at Twitter.

Twitter, of course, is only responsible for what it writes, not what others write. Thanks to 230.

(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.)

You may think that with Trump leaving office (even if the Secret Service needs to haul him out for trespassing) that this doesn’t matter. It does, because Joe Biden likewise thinks section 230 should be revoked.

The media may wish to focus on how this affects the tech giants — hey they got money, why don’t they just do a better job of content moderation? — but it affects me. And you.

It’s true that the comments on many sites are little more than a puddle of spittle that are unworthy of notice, except perhaps, noticing them for the purpose of avoidance. Some sites may allow people to do and say horrible things.

But it’s easy to identify problems. The hard part is finding solutions. There is no magic bullet for comment moderation. There is no artificial intelligence program that can figure out if the waiter or desk clerk in Ottumwa really was rude to you and if your comment about the incident was fair and accurate. Artificial intelligence can’t know if the product you ordered and reviewed online really was crappola.

If Section 230 is destroyed then many sites will simply stop allowing comments. Or, upon any complaint simply take down the comments of others, thereby giving a heckler’s veto to the complainant over the commenter without regard to accuracy.

The issue of Section 230 is not some esoteric lawyer thing. It’s fundamental to the way we now interact with others and how the internet functions.

I haven’t written about this before because I never took attempts to remove 230 immunity seriously. But when voice is given to it by both an outgoing and incoming POTUS, and the press pretends it’s only about “tech giants” then it is time to make sure you know what is at stake. What is at stake are both the comments you read and the comments you make.

If you are interested in more:

Hello! You’ve Been Referred Here Because You’re Wrong About Section 230 Of The Communications Decency Act (Masnick @ Tehdirt)

Everything you Need to Know about Section 230 (The Verge)

Can Section 230 Be Reformed? (Greenfield @ Simple Justice, 12/23/20)

I wrote this law to protect free speech. Now Trump wants to revoke it (Sen Ron Wyden @ CNN)

Section 230 is Good, Actually (Kelley at Electronic Frontier Foundation)