The Morning After or Social Media is a Humbug

Looking through window blinds, sun light coming inside.
Photo by photocreo.

Time for a hard look in the mirror?  We’ve been on a social media bender for years, and I’m thinking January 1, 2017 might be the day we begin to sober up and come to grips with its more negative effects.  When I began writing about all this stuff in 2011, it was partly in response to the fact that people seemed too eager to give the internet industry itself a free pass on the ill-effects of several major platforms because the internet writ large is perceived as so essential to democracy. And thanks to social media, the internet became an extension of our egos, in much the same way that liquor makes us all good looking and smart.

In January of 2012, a relatively small cadre of internet wonks rallied people to shout down SOPA—a bill almost nobody understood—and progressives in particular congratulated themselves for participating in “true democracy in action.” It scared the hell out of me because it was not democracy in action but industry-backed manipulation disguised as democracy.  Or as just one example of its insidious nature, the campaign was partly driven by the same anonymous denizens of a site called 4Chan, whence come many agitators of the alt-right that people now realize is a thing. My left-leaning friends who helped drive SOPA over the cliff failed to recognize the dark genie they’d let out of the bottle.  Forget that SOPA was not the toxic legislation everyone had been told it was; that’s just a minor, nagging detail. What matters is that the campaign against it was a blueprint for circumventing the democratic process itself.

The capacity to unleash thoughtless reaction in any number of directions is a power we have ceded to social media platforms.  If spurious Trump-tweets are disconcerting to you, I’d note that this was the same pavlovian mechanism at work in the anti-SOPA campaign and is more or less the manner in which we continue to dumb down the most complex issues into bites, memes, and zingers.  Kind of like those big ideas that seem really smart while under the influence, but are best left unfulfilled in the harsh reality of the ensuing hangover. So, here’s a question:  Is a platform like Twitter valuable because people get to respond to what a politician might say, or is it toxic because it gives a politician a round-the-clock platform for riling people up with some insipid one-liner in the first place?  Hint: Twitter is fine for sharing links but a stupid way to discuss real issues. The word twit is right there in the name.

With all the attention the election has focused on fake news and manipulation of information by a foreign power, it has been interesting to observe—at least anecdotally—a renewed sense of vigilance about the sources of information people choose to share or cite on Facebook.  It was not surprising, of course, that some folks wanted to blame the platform operators for failing to weed out fake news. And although it isn’t exactly Facebook’s fault that people are happy to believe nonsense in the first place, the medium is still the message; and it is a medium that instantly rewards what’s popular, not necessarily what is true, decent, thoughtful, or fair.  That was what frightened me about the anti-SOPA campaign—that suddenly being “right” en masse completely overwhelmed common sense, rational analysis, or the exchange of ideas.  The fact that nobody happened to be right was just bitter icing on the cake.

I’ve seen people respond to the fake news problem with the sentiment that they don’t want corporations like Facebook editing what we see online, but the fact is these entities already do edit what we see, but in a manner that serves their advertising and data-harvesting interests. So, while they’re at it, as long as people are going to use search engines and social media for acquiring news and information, the OSPs could be better corporate citizens and take a harder look at the negative effects that their anything-goes approach can have on business and consumers; on politics and journalism; on social behaviors and discourse; and even on the advertising that is their bread-and-butter.

One question I ask now is whether or not this sudden, wider realization that the internet may be chockfull of garbage—and is highly vulnerable to manipulation—will change the mood of the public with regard to giving OSPs quite so much latitude to sweep a million sins under the rug of the First Amendment. Invariably, whether we’re talking about copyright infringement, counterfeit operations, or predators, criminals, and terrorists using legal platforms for illegal purposes, the general response from Google & Friends has been that these problems cannot be addressed without harming otherwise protected speech.  It’s been an effective message but largely not a true one—especially when an OSP may earn revenue from the activities of bad actors and good actors at the same time.

In recent weeks, two stories trended about harassment of Muslims—one on the New York subway and one on a Delta flight—that proved to be false.  The second of these was perpetrated by a known prankster, who creates these spectacles for his YouTube channel. Historically, the progressive view would be to defend his free speech rights in defense of YouTube itself; but creating false claims of harassment is not only not protected speech, it is purposely throwing fuel on an already dangerous fire. Is YouTube required to support this guy’s channel because of the First Amendment?  Absolutely not. No more than they are required to support terrorist recruiting videos or videos demonstrating how to hack someone’s computer or videos that infringe the rights of musicians or other creators.

In reality, web platforms do not have the kind of constraints under the First Amendment that they often claim. The First Amendment protects American citizens and entities against censorship by state actors, while a privately-owned business like a social media site can adopt nearly any Terms of Service its operators choose.  Quite simply, YouTube could decide tomorrow to become a platform exclusively for videos featuring left-handed,  yodeling, Ukrainian, sword swallowers, and the creators of the millions of videos that would consequently be removed would not be able to make a First Amendment infringement claim against the company.  To the contrary, such a suit would be in conflict with the First Amendment rights of YouTube, which happen to be the same rights that allow a newspaper to employ editorial oversight of its content.

Getting Real About Free Speech

The big question is instantly tricky, of course, because the new president-elect is the first in living memory to voice such an openly hostile relationship with the free press and free speech; and we can, therefore, imagine real policy that could become legit First Amendment challenges. As such, it’s a good time to make more sober distinctions between actual First Amendment threats and perceived ones.  Because for the last several years, the internet industry has successfully labeled just about every effort to enforce reasonable, legal protections for consumers and businesses as a threat to free speech. But mitigating tangible harm in cyberspace is not in conflict with the First Amendment any more than it is in physical space.  In fact, it is often less of an issue because the harmful actors are neither located in the U.S. nor U.S. citizens, which means they do not technically enjoy—or even necessarily respect—First Amendment protections.

Of course, the conversation is probably going to get a lot dicier now. One major flaw of the Obama administration was that it gave way too much latitude to Google and other Silicon Valley firms to shape policy in a number of areas.  If the Trump administration and Congress take meaningful action to mitigate various types of harm online, the internet industry and the “digital rights” activists will likely amp up their free speech and “open internet” rhetoric, which will play even louder against the drumbeat of the Trump administration than it did during the Obama years.

Even trickier is the possibility that the new Executive really will advocate policies that run afoul of constitutional protections; and we don’t honestly know the extent to which Silicon Valley firms, to whom we’ve volunteered so much information, will cooperate.  One way or another, it’s going to be a bumpy damn ride, and a lot of crazy shit is going to fly around the web in the coming years—a lot of it disposable, trendy nonsense that will only further divide people who might otherwise find social and political common ground.

We’ve already seen attempts by the EFF, Techdirt, and the Press Freedom Foundation to conflate Trump’s press censorship rhetoric with the News Media Alliance’s interests in protecting its own copyrights online. And we can expect more of this kind of blurry messaging in the months and years to come. I believe these parties mean well, or want to mean well, but they’re still so drunk from the tech-utopian punchbowl that they don’t notice the bowl is full of all-sorts.*

With their over-broad invocations of the First Amendment, and their love of online anonymity, the tech-utopian observers fail to acknowledge the role major online platforms have played in making our political process uglier than it was 20 years ago. We’ve managed to recreate the outrageous theatrics of the turbulent 19th century rather than the more contemplative and moderated environment we had promised ourselves for the 21st.  Rational people are suddenly noticing that we’ve entered what they’re calling a post-truth era, which sounds to my ear like the queen mother of unintended consequences for what was billed as the “information age.”

In a recent video, Robert Reich recommended that people find opportunities to talk to one another in real life, especially if they are on opposite sides of the Trump divide.  Personally, I think he has the right idea.  After five years working on a non-partisan issue like copyright, I have become friends with some extraordinarily brilliant, generous, and empathetic individuals who are traditionally conservative and whom I certainly trust to uphold the core principles of the Republic, even as we discuss different views on a wide variety of issues.

Traditionally, in physical space, people are human beings whose personal narratives  and opinions remain invisible to one another.  On social media platforms, it’s the opposite; everyone’s narrative is on display while their basic humanity remains invisible. In this sense, social media’s promise to “connect” us is a bit of a humbug. Not that I would advocate outright abstention any more than I intend to give up scotch; but the start of 2017 is probably a good time for a reality check and a freshly moderated approach to the pros and cons of these platforms.

*All-sorts was a cask full of the combined dregs from drinks left on tables in a tavern, including God-knows how much backwash. A cup of all-sorts was the cheapest drink available, and for good reason.

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  • I wonder – what would happen if the WaPo or NYT printed an article stating that a candidate for president was running a child sex trade ring out of a pizza place? When in fact that was not true.. Well I suspect that news paper would be sued for libel and possibly shut down for the losses it suffered. Libel has been around a long time and existed peacefully along side free speech. For good reason. “Your right to swing your fist ends at the next person’s nose.” Yes, freedom of speech does not apply to parties that intentionally say or print false information about some one or some party that causes serious damage to them. But once again, Silicone Valley gets to do what they want without being subject to rules that everyone else does. So I do have to ask, how is that Silicone Valley goes unchallenged for it’s role in spreading fake information? Weill this article shed some light on the matter. It turns out the same Safe Harbor that protects You Tube from Copyright Infringement for distributing hundreds of millions of streams of artists works against their will also protects the Social Media platforms for spreading fake news:

    • In an article I’m working on, I’ll be discussing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is the statue in question regarding the types of liabilities you mention. Section 512 of the DMCA deals exclusively with copyright infringement. Thanks for your comments and for reading.

  • Thanks David, a great article.
    From my perspective the ride has already gotten far bumpier over recent months – I’m finding I’ve had to leave several fb groups that at first sound like promising platforms for rational exchanges of opinion but get overrun by a few bad actors (IMHO) throwing crazy shit against the wall to see how much will stick. Your phrase “nonsense that will only further divide people who might otherwise find social and political common ground” rings very true to me.

  • Assuming you IP hawks are against network neutrality, that should be at least one up-side to the coming Trump administration. He has made it abundantly clear that he wants to stack the FCC with net neutrality opponents.

    • Net neutrality has always been a bit of a con pushed out by Silicon Valley to entench their monopoly. Now if you are an ISP you shouldn’t be able to do a deal with company X to ensure that X’s video gets preferenctial treatment over company Y’s video, no one disagrees with that. However net neutrality was pushed to say that everyone has to give equal treatment to all types of protocols, that means that both X and Y got to push their content down the pipes without contributing to the infrastructure. So did the ISPs sponsor these tech companies? Well actually no it is the ISPs customers that pay through increased charges. In 2008 it was estimated that Google was responsible for ~17% of all network traffic but actually paid just 0.8% of the infrastructure costs effectively US tax payers subsidised Google to the tune of $6.9 billion, that number is far higher today. As the infrastructure was paid for Google for example became less keen on net neutraility looking to strike up deals with verizon as I recall. IOW net neutrality was seen as a way sponsoring a $billion companies operations. It is a bit as if trucks and motorbikes had to pay the same rate of Federal Highway Use tax, no one would think that was fair “but because internet” SV got away with this shit.

      As an aside back in 2008 every one with a website had bandwidth caps imposed by their web host. perhaps as low as 100Mb per month, for most websites crawler bots make up the bulk of the download accesses. So again John Doe was paying a hidden cost to the search engines.

      Back net neutrality. Say some rural location has poor internet access and they decide to dig a 10 mile trench to lay in fibre optic cable conect to the main pipe, and buy an amount of bandwidth from a major telco. IOW they are setting up OurVillageNet how does net neutrality work when a couple of guys in the area snaffle up all the bandwidth by streaming hours of porn each night?

      • Thanks for the helpful summary, John. It’s excellent. To n8chz’s comment, net neutrality isn’t strictly a concern one way or another of IP proponents but for the fact that, as you point out, it appears to be yet another boondoggle being sold to the public as a matter of their vital interest when it’s really a gift to the largest industrial users of bandwidth. All the headlines and graphics selling the “slow lane/fast lane” message simply don’t make any sense with regard to the way both providers and consumers use the internet. The largest corporate user of bandwidth is Netflix. If a provider like that has to shoulder more of the cost of delivery, that’s pretty much how every other provider of anything has to operate. This could result in higher subscription fees, but that’s not quite the same as disenfranchisement; and there’s no reason to assume the framework of fees, access prices, and taxes that we each pay will remain static as the market overall continues to change. As you note, John, access is an infrastructure cost; and as Americans, we have a bipolar approach when it comes to public/private stranded investments, which is one reason our infrastructure is antiquated compared to many countries in Europe or Asia. Historically, we shoot ourselves in the foot on many such enterprises, and upholding “Net Neutrality” principles sounds like a good way to do that again.

        Bandwidth is not uniform at all. How could it be? If User A wants to access the New York Times, he’s using considerably less bandwidth (slow lane) than User B next door, whose kid is gaming online (fast lane). And those two households can switch and each be drawing different bandwidth at different times. So, this message that the neutrality issue is about consumer access to information and messaging (i.e. that it’s a free speech issue) doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I remain open if someone can explain how the whole “fast lane/slow lane” premise is a legit concern in reality but have yet to encounter such an explanation.

      • “net neutrality isn’t strictly a concern one way or another of IP proponents”

        The fear of the anti-IP proponents is that the P2P protocol maybe get downrated in priority. IOW downloading the latest blockbuster movie would get less priority than say VoIP or HTML.

        The platforms: Google, Facebook, etc only rely on the public internet for the last part of the journey to the consumers machine. Otherwise they are using private networks that aren’t subject to ANY neutrality rules. Thus they could argue for regulations that imposed duties on others that they were never going to be subject to themselves. Andrew Orlowski had a good take on this some six years ago

        the effect is to entrench the current monopolies.

      • Example of web host bandwiths: This site used to get taken down regularly because of web crawlers gobbling up its monthly bandwith caps.

        much of it Google, Yahoo, Bing etc snaffling up all of Malcolm Storey’s images.

      • Thanks again, John, for adding much insight to this topic. Indeed, I recognize the piracy interests in net-neutrality, and Andrew is great resource on this stuff.

      • Disenfranchisement results not from higher access fees, but from disappearance of non-proprietary protocols (inclusion of digital restrictions management(DRM) in the HTML5 standard, for example). Perhaps those of us who want to preserve free-as-in-speech should have been framing things in terms of end-to-end rather than network neutrality. Even those who talk of network neutrality make it clear that this is not opposition to tiered pricing. Unfortunately some opponents of tiered pricing have latched onto the net neutrality cause; confusing the issue. I’m OK with a throttled or even capped connection, so long as it behaves in an end-to-end way.

        Just because I cherish general purpose computing doesn’t mean I’m a fan of Google. Google is now actively suppressing non-SSL sites in search rankings. Sure, SSL is a security essential if money happens to be chaning hands, but this is basically another entry barrier, probably at least as big a burden on self-published individuals and smaller nonprofits as search bot server load. Like network non-neutrality, this will have the effect of making it harder for non-commercial (non-monetized) content to find audiences, and vice versa. And then the Internet is just as brain dead as television.

      • “from disappearance of non-proprietary protocols (inclusion of digital restrictions management(DRM) in the HTML5 standard, for example).”

        Here I think you are talking about something entirely different from net neutrality.

        Personally I don’t have a problem with DRM so long as you know upfront that the CD/DVD or whatever is DRMd. Then you can make an informed choice. BTW DRM hasn’t been on music CDs for more than a decade.

        I agree with you about the SSL bullshit. A site that isn’t taking money hardly needs SSL. What does it matter if someone manages to filch the log in data for some forum site? Besides a good rule of thumb for security is “Don’t install stuff you don’t need”, we already know it is insecure, so if you don’t need SSL why should you need to install it?

        Actually the answer is because people reuse the same login passwords and usernames on multiple sites if Google and the rest can get everyone to pay for using SSL then perhaps Google and the rest won’t have to pay so much attention to their own security measures. That or making it more expensive to host your own content may drive more people into using Google properties such as blogger, or to sign up for Adsense in a futile attempt to defer some of the extra costs.

        At present I still have the #1 slot for Galileo’s tomb so they can’t have implimented that shite at present. Which brings me to another point which is just how crap these search engines really are. Being a simply photoblogger I should not have #1 search results for things like: “Galileo’s tomb”, “annunciation and visitation”, nor first page hits for “treaty of troyes” and a host of other such searches.

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