Welcome back to our discussion about platforms and democracy! I had a great time meeting Interface readers last week at the Techonomy conference in Half Moon Bay and the Conference on New Media and Democracy at Tufts University. I also made great progress on a special report I plan to have for you here before the end of the year. But enough prelude — on with today’s update.
“I’m one of the last people you’d expect to hear warning about the danger of conspiracies and lies,” the actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen said today in an op-ed in the Washington Post
, adapted from last week’s viral speech
about the dangers of social networks at an Anti-Defamation League conference.
In fact, Cohen is exactly the sort of person I’d expect to be warning us about social networks. As a rich celebrity who has no need for the free communication tools they provide, and who can thrive without relying on the promotional benefits that come with active use of the platforms, blasting Big Tech costs Cohen nothing.
Meanwhile, few people would have ever even heard of Cohen’s speech had it not thrived on social media — first on Twitter, then on YouTube — where social media critiques, particularly of Facebook, have grown increasingly popular. In coming to bury the big platforms, Cohen inadvertently proved their benefit: providing a wide lane for an outsider — in this case, a comedian with no previous experience as a tech pundit — to come in and start a worthwhile discussion.
To be sure, Cohen raises some valuable points — and he does so with more nuance and detail than the average “Zuck sucks” Twitter egg in my mentions. (Note the way he cites academic research in his links — a welcome touch.) Cohen is right, for example, about the unique danger of algorithmic recommendations on social platforms — the way they give fringe viewpoints unearned reach, and recruit followers for violent ideologies, most prominently on the far right:
The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify
content that keeps users engaged — stories that appeal to our baser instincts and trigger outrage and fear. That’s why fake news outperforms
real news on social media; studies
show lies spread faster than truth.
On the Internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC, and the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel Prize winner. We have lost a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.
Cohen also picks up on issue we have discussed here quite often in recent months: the fact that large technology companies, thanks to a combination of ignorance and inattention from our elected officials, are essentially accountable to no one, even as their products have unleashed dangerous, rippling butterfly effects the world over:
These super-rich “Silicon Six” care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy. This is ideological imperialism — six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest of the world, unaccountable to any government and acting like they’re above the reach of law. Surely, instead of letting the Silicon Six decide the fate of the world order, our democratically elected representatives should have at least some say.
Unfortunately, Cohen’s proposed solution for making tech platforms accountable is to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to make Facebook and other sites legally liable for what their users post. He approvingly cites the passage last year of FOSTA-SESTA, an act nominally intended to reduce sex trafficking that was really about scrubbing sexual content off the internet. By all accounts, it has done almost nothing to reduce sex trafficking. Instead, it has forced sex workers to once again rely on abusive pimps and put themselves into unnecessary danger
Websites reacted to the passage of FOSTA-SESTA by overreacting
. Once Craigslist could be found legally liable for unwittingly hosting an ad that enabled sex trafficking, it removed all personals from its service altogether. Reddit removed several communities associated with sex work. Several sites that allowed sex workers to vet potential clients shut down entirely
It seems likely that amending Section 230 to introduce what scholars call “intermediary liability” for Facebook et al would play out in much the same way: by over-moderating and censoring speech. In an environment in which democracy is in retreat around the world, and the internet is increasingly controlled by far-right authoritarian governments, the prospect of surging censorship in our communications tools sends a chill down my spine. How will Cohen feel when a government orders the takedown of one of his satires across the entire internet? If 230 disappears, and other countries adopt similar measures, I can’t imagine a likelier target.
Moreover, it’s Section 230 that enables platforms to be more aggressive in pulling down hate speech and abusive content — the outcome that Cohen argues for most passionately in his speech. His argument to eliminate Section 230 protections glosses right over this point, likely because Cohen misunderstands what Section 230 actually does
. (See also Mike Masnick on this point
Those qualms aside, what has stayed with me most about Cohen’s speech is the way it captures the new conventional wisdom among left-leaning critics: that Facebook disproportionately benefits the right wing. (Plenty of conservatives believe the exact opposite, of course.)
The thought that Facebook empowers the far right is not exactly new. Anxiety that Facebook had become a handmaiden to the conservative movement lay at the root of Cambridge Analytica blowing up into a global scandal in 2018, two years after we knew most of the details. (We knew that Facebook was sharing our data with third parties. What most of us didn’t know was that third parties were using that data as part of sophisticated, micro-targeted political influence campaigns.)
But there is new evidence of Facebook’s material support of the right wing. In the Wall Street Journal
this weekend, Deepa Seetharaman profiled James Barnes
, who Facebook once embedded in the Trump campaign to help officials there use the company’s advertising platform. Barnes, who like a growing number of former Facebook employees experienced a crisis of conscience over the work he did there, revealed that the company had made unusual arrangements to ensure Trump could buy the maximum amount of ads:
The profile lays out the extraordinary amount of assistance that Facebook lent Trump. In theory, the same amount of assistance was available to Hillary Clinton, but she declined. Barnes hand-coded custom advertising tools for Trump, ran split tests on advertising copy to see which would be most effective, and offered troubleshooting help whenever asked during what he describes as 12-hour days working on the campaign. He also ensured the company could access a larger line of credit than Facebook had ever previously extended:
The Trump campaign needed a large credit line from Facebook, according to Mr. Barnes and others familiar with the situation. This issue posed special challenges. Facebook sometimes extends credit to a select group of digital agencies, but Mr. Parscale’s outfit didn’t qualify for a large line because it didn’t have a track record with Facebook, according to people familiar with the matter. The Trump team also wanted to pay for ads with a credit card, but Facebook’s transactions system wasn’t set up to handle payments of as much as $300,000 to $400,000 a day on a credit card, according to Mr. Barnes and others familiar with the matter.
As employees looked for ways to address the problem, Mr. Parscale texted Mr. Barnes to say Mr. Trump would go on TV and “say Facebook was being unfair to him” if the issue wasn’t resolved quickly, Mr. Barnes said. Eventually, Facebook came up with a fix.
Of course, it’s possible that Facebook bent over backwards for Trump for simple reasons of self-preservation. In an environment where regulation seems increasingly likely, a corporation will naturally seek to make nice with any potential nemesis.
Still, the scope of Facebook’s aid to the Trump campaign is surprising. And it gives credence to one of the arguments made forcefully by Cohen: that social networks have been far more successful at empowering dangerous reactionaries than they have more progressive forces.
In most ways, 2019 was a stellar year for Facebook’s business. (Alex Heath has a nice [paywalled!] overview here
.) But it was a bad year for Facebook’s reputation. And until the company is held accountable for the misuses of its products in some meaningful way, it’s hard to see how that will improve. I only hope that when regulation comes, policymakers come up with better solutions than Cohen did.