October 22, 2020

Hey Tom Wheeler: Stick To Net Neutrality, Because Your Understanding Of Section 230 Is… Not Right

Remember back when former FCC chair Tom Wheeler surprised us all and turned out not to be a dingo. That was cool. But now that he’s out of government and working at the Brookings Institution, he’s perhaps not a dingo, but he does seem very, very confused.

He’s written a very strange piece entitled Technology, tribalism, and truth, which sounds like it should be interesting, but turns out to be quite a head-scratcher. It starts out talking about the vote counting fiasco at the Iowa caucus caused by faulty technology, and how it could “sow seeds of doubt about the functioning of democracy itself.” As we wrote in our piece about it — that’s not exactly a reasonable lesson to take from the fact that using software meant that votes were counted later than people had hoped. There are plenty of other concerns about the functioning of democracy itself that can come out of the Iowa caucus process — but those have little to do with the faulty software.

But Wheeler then uses that one faulty app, that simply delayed vote counts, as a weird springboard to attack social media:

Social media undermines what the Founding Fathers were focusing on when they wrote “We the People” and established the motto “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one). The concept of “We” and the formation of a “Unum” is essential for democracy to work. Humans are inherently tribal. Democracy requires us to overcome that tribalism—to find our Unum—in the pursuit of a greater good. In contrast, the business plans of the dominant digital companies are built on dividing us into tribes in order to sell targeted access to each tribe.

I know that many people have a faith-based belief that social media has divided us into tribes, but there’s little empirical evidence to back that up. Indeed, social media has connected more people to other “tribes” and other people than any other system in history. And there’s little in the “business plans” of social media that is helped by “dividing us into tribes.” Indeed, I think Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others would be a ton happier if their platforms weren’t used for tribal behavior, and if they could stop having to respond to news reports claiming as such.

And then, apparently it’s all Section 230’s fault, again, for unclear reasons:

Not only does the business plan of the internet enable such attacks, but also the lack of curation allows lies to run rampant. In 1996 Congress exempted digital services from liability for what they distribute. It was a time when the internet was defined by screeching modems, services such as AOL and CompuServe, and a technology full of promise. A quarter of a century later that exemption—known as Section 230—has become the pathway for liars, both foreign and domestic. Instead of protecting the open flow of a rich debate, this law has protected the secret sorting and delivery of untruths and half-truths without accountability.

This paragraph is so full of wrong it’s embarrassing. First of all, just a paragraph earlier in the piece, Wheeler was attacking curation, in that it allowed Russians to influence an election — and then in the very next paragraph he argues that Section 230 (the 1996 act of Congress he’s discussing), there’s a “lack of curation.” Uh, which is it? Also, there is no lack of curation. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, they all curate. They curate a ton. That’s why lots of people are angry at them. Others are angry that they curate too much. But to argue they don’t curate… is… just… wrong. Very, very, wrong.

And, by the end of the paragraph, he’s back to admitting that they do curate. They just don’t curate the way he wants them to. I’m curious as to how he thinks 230 has anything to do with that? If his complaint is the “secret” part of the sorting — well, that’s not a 230 issue at all. If his complaint is with the delivery of untruths and half-truths… well, then his complaint is with the 1st Amendment. If his complaint is with the curation part itself, then he’s still confused because he doesn’t seem to understand how it works at any social media platform.

And then… it gets even more bizarre. He brings up the Fairness Doctrine — which the FCC used to enforce in making broadcast TV stations have to show “both sides” of various stories. Republicans hated it and fought hard against it. Many Republicans also falsely claimed that net neutrality was a “fairness doctrine for the internet” (it was not). Ironically, many of those Republicans (Hi Ted Cruz!) are now supporting what is a special fairness doctrine for the internet, designed to stop internet platforms from banning Nazis, who happen to support their campaigns.

But, Wheeler brings up the Fairness Doctrine… to explain why Rush Limbaugh got the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as a lead in to why the internet is bad… and I’ve read this multiple times and still can’t figure out what he’s trying to say.

Congress acted to assure that conflicting ideas had access to the airwaves. After seeing how Hitler manipulated the German public using the media, and with the rising fear of Communism, in 1949 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposed a Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters to require the airing of all sides of a controversial issue.

The Fairness Doctrine was repealed by the Reagan FCC in 1987. The result was conservative talk radio. That Rush Limbaugh could stand and receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the State of the Union is testimony to the effect of eliminating the requirement for radio stations to present all sides of an issue.

Sure, the end of the Fairness Doctrine allowed for one-sided radio and TV. We know that. But what’s that got to do with the internet?

But you can turn the dial if you don’t want to listen to Rush. There is less choice with social media. What economists call “network effects” mean everyone wants to be on the social media platform everyone else is on. The result is a captive audience to be secretly sorted and served by software.

What? No, Tom, no. That’s not how any of this works. There is plenty of choice in social media. You can choose who you follow. You can choose who to block and who not to follow. You can choose not to use certain platforms. You have tons of choice. It does not force things upon you like you claim. Has Tom Wheeler ever actually used social media?

What should replace Section 230? Our democracy, after all is built on strong First Amendment protections. However, laws require advertisers to be truthful in their claims, and for broadcasters to follow behavioral standards. Newspapers can be held liable for what they publish—but what about the newspaper’s digital equivalent? Because a digital company distributes information on the internet, Section 230 sets it free of basic responsibilities.

Your complaint is with the First Amendment, not 230, Tom. Even if Section 230 sets them “free of basic responsibilities,” that ignores just how much responsibility each and every internet platform has taken. And that’s for two reasons. First, Section 230 does allow them to moderate content and to experiment with the best way how. That’s important. But, more important, is that every platform moderates because of public pressure to do so. Every platform has hired thousands upon thousands of moderators, and invested in all sorts of technology, because they know if they don’t, their platforms become filled with nonsense and spam and abuse and harassment.

The complaint that Tom has about moderation is that it doesn’t moderate content the way they want them to moderate. But that’s not a 230 issue. That’s a “you’re not the ones making the moderation decisions” problem.

Unfortunately, Wheeler’s piece is all too similar to many of the other people, ignorant of how content moderation actually works, think: they think that mistakes they find out about in moderation are due to some malicious reason — either a failure to moderate, or a willingness not to moderate for economic reasons. But that’s not what’s happening. All these platforms spend a ton on moderation, and mistakes are still made because mistakes are inevitable. That’s not the fault of Section 230. And a fairness doctrine doesn’t help.

The solution remains the same as Wheeler thought it was for radio: just turn the damn dial. Don’t follow people who spew misinformation. Don’t like their posts and don’t share them. Or debunk them, like I’m doing with all of the misinformation in Wheeler’s own post.

Truth cannot be allowed to become a casualty of technology. The search for democratic Unum cannot be allowed to become a casualty of technology. It is no wonder cynicism abounds when untruth and tribalism are the result of our principal communications tool. Historically, society has stepped up to the challenges of new technology. Now is our historic moment.

The untruth and tribalism are your post, Tom. That’s the problem.
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