Senate Hearings:  A Sea Change for Social Media Companies & Users

Yesterday afternoon the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled:  “Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online:  Working with Tech to Find Solutions.” Representing the social media companies were Colin Stretch, General Counsel at Facebook; Sean Edgett, Acting General Counsel at Twitter; and Richard Salgado, Director of Law Enforcement And Information Security at Google.

The news to come out of this hearing will not compete with the blockbuster revelations produced the day before by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller; but in the long run, it may prove to be more important.  Because regardless of who in the current administration may yet be implicated in Russia’s disinformation campaign aimed at the United States, the matters of greatest significance are that it happened, the ways in which it happened, and that is still happening.  And it’s not all about Russia.

Some Background

Shorthand terms like “Russian hacking” do not properly describe the nature of what’s going on; and the significance of what’s going on should be understood as separate from any collusion that may or may not have existed between Russia’s agents and the Trump campaign.  In a nutshell, what the Russian-based Internet Research Agency engaged in had less to do with backing a particular candidate and far more to do with spreading mass dis-information to exacerbate divisiveness among the American electorate.  And there is no better way to achieve this disruption than by using social media platforms.

The estimates reported state that 126 million Americans were exposed to paid, targeted messaging used to spread false and emotionally-charged rumors, some of which favored one candidate or another, but all of which was designed to foment political discord and volatility. As the opening testimony of Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute stated in Part II of these Committee hearings, “Terrorists’ social media use has been acute and violent, but now authoritarians have taken it to the next level using social media more subtly to do something far more dangerous – destroy our democracy from the inside out through information campaigns designed to pit Americans against each other.”

That theme—pitting Americans against each other—cannot be overstated in this story, and I’ll return to it shortly.

A Taste of the Hearing

Coming to terms with the negative effects the “information age” can have on democracy is a reckoning long overdue, and yesterday was the first time in my experience that representatives of Silicon Valley were compelled to stifle their utopian rhetoric and admit that their products yield unintended and poisonous consequences.  In fact, early in the hearing, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) directly asked the three witnesses if they were going drop the “we’re just a neutral platform” posturing and accept that they have an active role to play in addressing the matters before the Committee.  All three answered the senator in the affirmative.

That in itself is big news.  The Committee’s unwillingness to accept the shrug of “neutrality” from these companies has implications for cyberlaw that go beyond addressing the immediate issue of foreign powers meddling in US elections.  For instance, it is worth remembering that while Mr. Salgado was promising that Google will take affirmative action and not hide behind a veil of neutrality regarding issues addressed in this hearing, parent company Alphabet’s juggernaut of lobbyists and PR outlets are presently trying to kill the anti-sex-trafficking bill SESTA on the grounds that it would weaken the neutral position of their platform.

There were a few awkward moments between the Committee and the witnesses regarding broader questions about the capabilities of the platforms.  Those of us who advocate certain legal boundaries online (like copyright enforcement) are used to the shell game in which the platforms boast about their capabilities to advertisers one moment (e.g. the ability to perform granular-level, targeted marketing) and in the next moment, state contradictorily that they cannot weed out toxic or illegal content because they “can’t police the internet.”

Among the highlights on this theme was Senator Al Franken’s (D-MN) entertaining inquiry directed at Facebook’s Mr. Stretch in which he asked how, with the company’s extraordinary computing capacity, it failed to “connect two dots” and consider that “American” political ads paid for with rubles might be a reason to doubt the nature of the advertiser.  In a related exchange with Mr. Salgado on the subject of Google’s capacity to weed out foreign-based political ads, Sen. Franken felt the response was too internal-policy focused and reminded the witness, “You know it’s illegal for any foreign money to be spent in our election process, right?”

These hearings mark the first time that I can remember any representative of the major platforms stating with so little equivocation that they can, will, and should implement steps to mitigate harmful content on their platforms.  Doubts were raised, however, by some members. Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) told Mr. Strech pointedly that he simply doesn’t believe Facebook can effectively vet over five million ads per month; and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) accused all three platforms of responding too slowly, of missing opportunities and warning sings, and of hosting toxic content that is still online right now.

Although some Committee members raised concerns about First Amendment protections—in fact, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) cited incidents of alleged censorship of conservative views by the platforms themselves—neither any Committee Member of either party, nor any of the three witnesses, reiterated the generalization that removing illegal or harmful content from the platforms was fundamentally incompatible with the protection of free speech.  To the contrary, there seemed to be a very clear consensus that the manner in which these tools have been—and may continue to be—manipulated by bad actors is so harmful to democracy itself that, in context, free speech becomes a weapon of self-destruction. And that brings us back to that underlying theme and the real significance of what the Russian “hackers” did:  pit Americans against each other.

A New Kind of Literacy

I opined in a recent post that a new kind of media literacy is needed for the digital age.  Because no matter what Congress can legislate, and no matter what actions the platforms may take, people themselves are going to have to be more vigilant about the content they believe to be true, let alone share.  The mistaken expectation that the internet would be a kind of turbo-booster for democratic values comes from a reasonable, if somewhat elitist, assumption.  The theory was that if people have access to information, unfiltered by the influence of manipulators and monied gatekeepers, the collective wisdom of a fundamentally benevolent society would galvanize core democratic principles.  The manipulators would be powerless in such a fact-rich environment.

These assumptions completely overlooked some fundamental realities:  1) the platforms themselves can be used by a wide range of manipulators to manufacture false information; 2) false information that jibes with pre-conceived bias is almost impossible to recognize as false because; 3) people are driven more by emotion than by information.  The fault of the technologists, whose expertise is data, was to assume that information builds community—or at least to sell that idea.  But the truth is almost always just the opposite, even without propagandists hijacking reality.

The Opposite of Social Media

As an example of the limits of social media, I think about the story of Daryl Davis, who was featured by several news organizations shortly after the riots in Charlottesville.  Davis, a black blues musician, is responsible for over 200 men quitting the Ku Klux Klan—a journey that began, humorously enough, when a white man in a bar complimented him by saying he’d never heard “a black guy who could play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.”  Davis’s explanation that Lewis learned everything he knew from black musicians led to a cordial conversation and the discovery that the white guy was a member of the KKK.  Thus began Davis’s decision to travel the country, meet other Klan members, and write a book about his experiences.  Along the way, many of the friends he made abandoned the organization and gave Davis their robes as penitential offerings.

Now, imagine if Davis’s first encounter with that first Klan member had been through the cold portals of social media rather than in person and through the shared experience of quintessentially American music. Add to that the trove of “information” the white guy could link to “proving” the genetic inferiority of Davis’s race. Can anyone doubt that the most likely outcome of this online exchange would be a hardening of the white guy’s racism (and perhaps a hardening of Davis’s feelings as well)?

Nothing in such and exchange would have to qualify as hate speech or any other content that would even get on the radar of the issues discussed in yesterday’s Senate hearing. It’s the kind of exchange that happens all the time—just two Americans being driven further apart by the mechanisms of a platform whose corporate mission is to “build community.”  That paradox is something the folks at Facebook et al—and those of us who use these platforms—are going to have to reconcile no matter what Congress does.

Image by alexlmx

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