A few days ago, a friend posted on FB about a comment he had made there that FB had deleted. I don’t know what he was responding to with his comment, but the comment was “Boys are dumb. Throw rocks at them.” FB deleted the comment as violating its standards and termed the comment as hate speech.
My friend posted a screen shot of the comment and indicated he would be leaving FB. I responded with “But … boys are dumb. And they grow up to be dumb men. The truest sign of our intelligence though is that we have come to accept this as fact about ourselves.” This comment was almost immediately deleted by FB for the same reason — a violation of its standards and a statement of hate.
As I noted afterwards, maybe FB’s community standards algorithm should be named Sheldon Cooper, since it clearly doesn’t get sarcasm.
I’ve been a user of social media ever since my older son turned 13 and joined FB. When he joined, I joined so I could see what it was about. That was more than 12 years ago. Since then I’ve joined Instagram, started blogging, and starting two or three years ago, got more and more involved on Twitter.
I have a love-hate with all of this stuff. FB, when I started, was a nice little platform where I could keep up with friends and family who I couldn’t see in person on a regular basis. It really was a pretty positive experience for a short period of time. But then that positive element was overwhelmed by two elements that started to develop.
First, it became a place for people to engage in senseless political arguments (and yes, I was involved in a few), with most of the arguments revolving around insane conspiracy theories or memes that were easily disproven. But almost nobody was ever willing to acknowledge they could be wrong. They were going to believe what they were going to believe regardless of how wrong they were. (At this very moment, I’m involved in one of these “discussions” with a guy who claims there is “substantial evidence” to support Trump’s claims about fraud in vote by mail systems. I’ve challenged him to provide the “substantial evidence.” He tried — a link to a Heritage Foundation that provides examples of all types of voter fraud, almost none of which involved voting by mail.)
Second, FB became more and more dominated by ads, sponsored posts, and other crap that has nothing to do with my friends and family – the reason I joined FB in the first place. Seriously, there is very little on the platform anymore that has to do with why I joined. FB’s profit motive has pretty much ruined the platform.
Twitter is a whole other ball game … it’s the wild, wild west of social media platforms. Every aspect of humanity is on the platform. Yes, all of it…
So much of Twitter is such a cesspool of hate, intolerance, and stupidity. It has become all of the bad things that were on FB, but on steroids. I have had all sorts of disagreements with people on Twitter — both liberal and conservative, progressive and right wing. The most recent was with a woman who claimed that Obama had repealed the Smith-Mundt Act in 2012, thereby authorizing the mainstream media to publish propaganda and lies in the United States. I looked it up, she was totally wrong. Obama didn’t repeal the Act, he signed a Defense funding bill sent to him by Congress that included an amendment to the Act. And what does the Act do — it covers Government-controlled media outlets, like Voice of America. It has nothing to do with the mainstream media, and what the amendment did was allow those government-controlled media outlets to start publishing and airing their “news” within the United States. So, I told her she was wrong. She replied with “look it up.” I responded that I did. She then sent me a link to a summary of what happened in 2012 — which supported exactly what I said and completely contradicted her claim. When I pointed this out to her, she blocked me.
There are good things about social media … the aforementioned ability to maintain contact with friends and family I don’t see regularly, for instance. Also, there are plenty of good conversations I have via social media with all sorts of different people, and the number of social media friends I have acquired over the years is a wonderfully remarkable thing. People from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and all points across the United States who have become a regular part of my daily dialogue.
But the bad things just seem so overwhelming to me at times, and I’m in one of those places now, particularly with respect to Twitter. The use of these platforms to spread propaganda and lies and to sow discord in our country is ripping us apart. The use of them to create silos, echo chambers, where people come on and post whatever nonsense they want and then reject any efforts at education or learning how they might be wrong. Well, they don’t have to because they get all sorts of likes and accolades from others who are just as equally wrong and uninformed. The propaganda use of these platforms is just relentless.
And now we have a President who is the biggest user of these platforms as a propaganda tool. He revels in his ability to do so and now is going after social media platforms because Twitter finally got a little bit of steel in its backbone and posted “fact-checking” links on a couple of his tweets. It seems clear now that he was waiting for this, given it took less than 48 hours for him to put out an executive order in response to what Twitter did.
Here’s my problem. In some ways, I agree with him. Section 230 — the provision that provides internet platforms with liability protection when they allow users to post bad things on their platforms — doesn’t really seem to apply to these platforms anymore. Why? Because they are now trying to police the content they allow on their platforms. See above about my comment being deleted, see all of the examples of accounts being deleted, suspended, or otherwise policed due to violation of their standards and rules. And once they start policing their platforms, don’t they become responsible for what they allow to remain? Shouldn’t they? Why should they avoid liability for what they publish once they start to refuse to publish some things?
A larger issue here is one of the bedrocks of our system of government. Freedom of speech. As frustrated as I am by what goes on on these platforms, the last thing I want to see is government setting rules they must follow in terms of what speech is allowed or not allowed. These are privately-owned and operated platforms. As such, they can set whatever rules they want regarding the content they will allow. Let the market then decide — through users, lawsuits, etc. — whether or not they survive. I don’t trust Zuckerberg and his algorithms (it’s funny, after Twitter did what they did, Zuckerberg said they shouldn’t be in the business of arbitrating the truth of what is posted — which explains why FB removed one of The Lincoln Project’s anti-Trump videos.). I don’t trust Twitter and Jack’s motivations. I don’t trust any of them to do the right thing. They are entirely motivated by money and power.
So, what do we do? If government isn’t really the right tool for taming the wild, wild west of the internet and if the companies cannot be trusted, what do we do? It would be nice if I had faith in us humans to get smarter about what we do on these platforms, but it’s pretty clear that ain’t happening any time soon. In some respects, we’ve opened Pandora’s Box. I’m not sure we can close it again.