Social platforms and responsibility

I’ve been mulling some words on free speech on the internet for a while, but a couple of pieces on Tyler Cowen’s blog finally moved me to write them down.

Recently there have been many, many white men on the internet extremely concerned about “censorship,” and a lot of credulous observers giving these absurd complaints the time of day. Most of them have the issue precisely backwards. The internet, and democratic society itself, would benefit from a much stronger sense of responsibility by those who own and control the platforms that matter, and by more aggressively nixing toxic and abusive behavior.

Just the other week, Cloudflare’s CEO woke up, grew a pair, and kicked the Daily Stormer off the internet. This was unambiguously the right decision – it’s only too bad it didn’t happen sooner. The CEO, Matthew Prince, wrote a thoughtful blog post agonizing over it which is worth a read, but what really comes through is how incredibly uncomfortable Prince feels being in the position of regulating content. That isn’t what he signed up for, after all – Cloudflare is a CDN and DNS company, not a content platform. This is fair. Yet, like it or not, they played a vital role in giving an awful group of dangerous people a global platform to spew their poison. As such, deciding to terminate their account was not only permissible and courageous – it was also probably the ethically necessary thing to do.

In his piece, Prince despaired for the lack of “a clear framework as a guide for content regulation.” Naturally, such a thing does not exist and never has. Big Newspaper, Big Publishing and Big TV has struggled with the same issues for as long as these media have existed. The answer has usually come down to: we publish what we can sell. The subtext to that has been, “what we can sell is subject to contemporary standards of taste,” because until very recently, mass media has meant broadcasting to audiences of millions, with only the most basic of segmenting. You can’t imagine the New York Times or Washington Post giving page inches to pros-vs-cons of chattel slavery or “what really happened at Sandy Hook,” because publishing such obviously offensive druck would rightly outrage the mainstream audiences that mass media outlets cater to.

But another, mostly unappreciated, reason why those scenarios above are sort of unthinkable is because many of those media companies (particularly the newspapers) are directly associated with individuals and families. Think of the Sulzbergers or the Grahams and the NYT/WaPo, respectively. Their rarefied social circles of course permitted some distasteful views, particularly way back when, but blatant, aggressive, vile hate speech was not among them; they wanted to be known (and for the most part were) for reliable journalistic integrity. I believe Bezos and the best of the “new media” aspires to the same today, in part because these aspirational values are deeply inculcated in a lot of the American upper class. (See Franklin Foer’s recent essay about Chris Hughes’ experiment with the personal savior act at The New Republic.)

Of course, these media empires are no longer the platforms that really matter most. Today it’s GAFA, which holds few if any of these same qualms about truthiness or rigor. GAFA strenuously avoids the title of “publisher” – when it comes to the content their platforms actually deliver, they swear, they’re just a dumb pipe. (This tune changes in a big way if you’re an advertiser, of course.) Despite extensive evidence that hostile governments are using their platforms as a means of information warfare against the United States, GAFA (and Facebook in particular) are mostly silent. Documenting influence bot activity on Twitter is now its own genre. Every stripe of conspiracy theorist, huckster or charlatan uses both platforms to build an audience, from the anti-vaxxers, 9/11 and Sandy Hook truthers to white supremacists, neo-Nazis, terrorists and their long tail of fellow travelers. This all has real, human consequences, yet both companies avoid action behind the rhetorical fig leaf of “free speech.” The public does not seem to blame Zuckerberg or Dorsey personally for tolerating this, even though no less than the President calls out Jeff Bezos by name for mildly negative coverage in the Washington Post.

We live in an era in which tech has hyperconcentrated corporate control (ex. through multiple share classes), but abdicated personal responsibility for the bad effects of its platforms. This applies to Google and Apple, of course, but social platforms most of all due to their outsized cultural effect. This is exactly the opposite of how it should work. With the greater accrual of wealth and control into very few hands, the people at the top of these companies have an even larger degree of responsibility for how these products are used. They should emulate Matthew Prince’s bravery and display some courage – not to modify a phone accessory jack, but to deprive the most destabilizing, toxic and fraudulent voices on the internet a megaphone. Kick them off. Remove their accounts, ban their code words and don’t make excuses about why. In other words, stand for something, and make the internet a better place in the process.

“Free speech” is not just a legal concept. It’s also a pillar of liberal democracy and open society. The cretins, deplorables and basketcases should all have the freedom to openly express their nonsense without legal persecution (with the usual caveats about inciting violence). But none of that entitles them to DNS services, domain registrars or a Facebook page. Let the Daily Stormer and the rest of the lowest of the low hand out pamphlets on street corners. Most of them won’t. Half of them are simply con schemes duping the gullible out of their money. Others, like the Charlottesville protesters indignant about being “doxxed,” they are basically cowards who don’t want their peers to know how horrible their opinions are. The rest are too few to matter.

Yeah, a few people will howl about censorship and “free speech.” Big deal. Point them towards the appropriate XKCD, move on and sleep soundly. Doing the right thing may not always be easy, but it definitely helps you sleep better at night.

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