May 11, 2021

Bad Analogy: Comparing Social Media To Guns

By Mike Masnick
We’ve been seeing all sorts of really dumb analogies lately as people try to complain about social media. During the recent Senate hearing about social media and content moderation, Senators from both parties compared social media to cigarette smoking, somehow ignoring the fact that in that analogy the “tobacco” is “1st Amendment protected speech.” But Reuters decided to one up that and compare social media companies to gunmakers. And, if that sounds incredibly stupid as a concept, reading the actual article makes it worse. Much worse.

Guns and social networks have several things in common. Many people enjoy them responsibly, but in the wrong hands they’re dangerous. Yet both enjoy an unfair subsidy in the form of legal protections that shield them from the actions of their users. That can’t last forever.

I mean… what? The article argues that Section 230 is an “unfair subsidy” in the same way that the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act is an “unfair subsidy” to gunmakers. But, in both cases, these laws aren’t a subsidy. They’re both laws that properly apply liability to those committing the crimes, and in doing so, creating rules that help protect key Constitutional rights.

Without these shields, both industries would change radically. Gun-rights supporters claim that without PLCAA, a sector with 47,000 workers would go bust. That’s probably hyperbole. But lawsuits and safety features would impose legal costs and make guns more expensive to produce. For social media, more active moderation would mean more employees. Users would have to get more used to the idea that their Facebook or Twitter posts aren’t free.

I don’t know how changing the PLCAA would impact gun makers, but this article takes a huge fucking leap in assuming that removing 230 would “mean more employees” and “more active moderation.” After all, pre-230, the courts seemed to be zeroing in on using traditional distributor liability concepts, which would mean that there was a knowledge standard to create liability. And thus, without 230, you’d be likely to see the opposite in many cases: fewer moderators, fewer employees, and less moderation. More lawyers, though.

Or you’d get the other extreme: a few specialized sites, with very, very heavy handed moderation, which would effectively be true gatekeepers for speech, and not the open arenas for discussion we see today.

Facebook and Twitter have an edge over gunsmiths. They know their legal impunity is threatened and are trying to get ahead of the problem. Dorsey and Zuckerberg have welcomed Section 230 changes. That’s sensible, because they can help reset the rules. Compared with gunmakers, they’ll then be better equipped to survive when their magical armor is taken away.

What? Dorsey and Zuckerberg support narrowly tailored reform (mainly around transparency reporting) in part because they know that they can handle the regulatory burden to deal with the increased liability. All the smaller companies and individual websites could not.

Bad analogies are not useful in understanding how free speech works online — and comparing social media to gunmakers is particularly ridiculous. And, how does it compare to guns? In this analogy, with guns people get killed. In social media… people say dumb stuff? And that needs to somehow be regulated? Really?

It’s really not that difficult to understand how Section 230 works, and the kinds of things that would happen if it were removed. You’d think that a media organization like Reuters would at least make sure the stories its publishing would understand basic concepts. After all, as a publisher, they’re “liable” for whatever they publish.