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Now that the debate over Internet censorship has gone mainstream, a new poll from Gallup and the Knight Foundation has found that a whopping 80 percent of Americans don’t trust the big social media giants when it comes to making content decisions. Put another way – they really don’t like the idea of people like Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Jack Dorsey at Twitter or Susan Wojcicki at YouTube having a say in what you get to read, see or view online. As much as these big social media giants claim that they are just getting rid of “hate speech” or other forms of dangerous content, most people have nagging concerns about the willingness of Silicon Valley’s techno elite to impose their values and viewpoints on the rest of the world.
Twitter and censorship of the Twitterverse
We already saw this scenario play out in the controversy involving Twitter and President Trump. When Trump suggested that mail-in ballots might be susceptible to fraud and other voting shenanigans, Twitter promptly labeled his tweet as misinformation and fact-checked him with content from CNN and The Washington Post. Twitter obviously is in favor of mail-in ballots, and imposed its will on the entire Twitterverse. So Trump struck back by signing a new executive order classifying the big social media giants as publishers rather than platforms. By doing so, he was opening them up to all kinds of legal liability.
The debate over Section 230
But there’s just one problem with that approach. Trump is signaling that he is ready to override Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has been a sort of legal safe harbor for social media companies like Facebook and Twitter. But according to the same Gallup/Knight Foundation poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans support Section 230. They view this as an important piece of legislation that enables freedom of speech online and plenty of freewheeling Internet content. And, in truth, Section 230 is generally cited as one of the most important legal pillars of the modern digital ecosystem. By freeing companies like Facebook and Twitter of any legal liability for content appearing on their platforms, it allowed them to get very big, very fast.
So what we are really seeing here is a “clash of values,” according to the Knight Foundation. On one hand, Americans love the idea of freedom of information and freedom of speech. On the other hand, they don’t really trust the social media platforms responsible for these freedoms, especially when it comes to editorial content decisions. They’d really rather not have companies like Facebook deciding what to ban, whom to shadow ban, and what to censor.
An expanded role for the government?
Based on this, it might be suggested that government should play an extended role here. However, if there’s one entity that Americans trust less than a Silicon Valley social media company, it’s the government. And, for good reason. If you’re a Republican, would you really want Nancy Pelosi or AOC determining what you see, read and view on the Internet each day? And if you’re a Democrat, would you really want Donald Trump and MAGA supporters having a say in what you see in your Facebook newsfeed each day?
The problem with trying to legislate technology
The core problem here is that technology is evolving at a much higher rate than the legislation designed to support it. The Communications Decency Act, for example, dates back to 1996 — nearly a full decade before Twitter or Facebook really got going. In much the same way, all of the online hullabaloo over Net Neutrality stems, in part, from a piece of relatively anachronistic legislation known as the Communications Act of 1934 – back when the big debate was over landline telephones replacing the telegraph!
So maybe lawyers and Washington regulators are not the answer. But clearly, something needs to be done to fix a situation in which the big social media giants simply have too much power and are no longer trusted by the American people.