Let me see if I have this straight.
Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica to help Russians and [garble mumble Trump something or other] wash my brain in 2016, which then caused me to…well, NOT vote for Trump (I didn’t vote for Trump; *WARNING: ACTUAL EMPIRICALLY VERIFIABLE EVENT*), but nevertheless somehow socially fall apart in relation to “democratic institutions,” whatever that means, and therefore we need to declare a CRISIS about (a) data privacy (because that’s really scary), and (b) freedom of political speech on social media – but mainly, really, freedom of political speech on social media, because (snap fingers! Snap fingers! Over here!) data privacy is something to get really, really super-indignant about, so rant about that, folks, and don’t worry about our totally obvious, genius solution which we promise you’ll love for eliminating freedom of political speech on social media.
Did I leave anything out?
It was encouraging to see some of our senators come to Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook hearing on Tuesday armed with important ideas about intellectual freedom and the state of current law. Ted Cruz was tops in my book (video below). Lindsey Graham and Ben Sasse got in some good comments, although they did leave me wondering exactly what their commitment is to keeping the Internet free of dangerously pervertible regulation.
(Note: for an explainer on what Cruz is talking about with Section 230 of the CDA, see here.)
Zuckerberg, however, spoke mostly in politically correct phrases strung together, seeming to imagine that if he said “hate speech” often enough, and reiterated Facebook’s boilerplate about “what kind of platform they want to be,” that would excuse him from having to understand how the law sees things like freedom of speech, and company obligations under contracts and legal decrees.
So I’m not enthusiastic about using any of this as a guide to future policy. We have backed into this situation based almost entirely on non-parsing scare-themes and innuendo.
The actual, tangible result of everything that has happened to date is that conservative views are being systematically suppressed on Facebook – and on other social media – by the use of purported content warnings and discriminatory algorithms that impede their circulation.
Nothing else can be validated or quantified: not “what it means” that Cambridge Analytica (among many others) had access to data about you in 2016 (and 2012, and 2008, etc.), and not whether the use of Facebook by Russian trolls has had any impact at all on anything, period, except maybe the workload of some Facebook employees and researchers in academia and the blogosphere.
Yet instead of talking about making sure one side of the political spectrum isn’t shut out of social media – which is actually happening – we’re talking about data privacy as if it has some nefarious voodoo connection with Donald Trump, and about political speech as if we all agree with the earnest-faced Mr. Zuckerberg that some of it has got to be shut down.
Data privacy is an important issue, to be sure. There’s nothing wrong with taking it up as a subject for greater attention and better law.
But it’s not the same topic as freedom of political speech, and it isn’t to be dealt with in the same way.
In that regard, and in general, this is going the wrong direction. There are smart people out there already talking about just accepting the idea of regulating political speech on Facebook. The unspoken premise of their discourse is that if there were a set of agreed-on rules, that would somehow level the playing field for those whose political speech is disliked, by either Facebook or some quasi-governmental rule-writing entity.
But it wouldn’t. The long-term effect of having such rule frameworks is always to suppress the speech of people who argue, by any method, for liberty.
Such rule frameworks invariably become vehicles for institutionalizing biased language, biased premises, and outright lies. Always. There is no other dynamic.
The only way to protect the truth and foster open debate is to commit to not having such rule frameworks for regulating political “tolerance” and “boundaries.” The commitment instead must be to respecting liberty of thought and speech. The commitment has to overrule temporary or situational displeasure with specific speech. There is no other way to protect the space needed for empiricism, cumulative wisdom, consensus (as opposed to intellectual coercion and bullying), and truth.
What we didn’t hear today, but what governs the future
Someday soon, Facebook’s monopoly will be a thing of the past. The Facebook concept, as it currently exists, is already outdated. To take just one example, it’s an undifferentiated bin into which users throw all their social interactions. Your vacation, your kid’s soccer trophy, your passion for 1960s MGs, your video clips of dogs eating ice cream cones, and your preference for Brilliant Political Leader A as against Moronic Political Nincompoop B – all go into a big mishmash, and circulate among your “friends.”
But your friends’ mellows are really harshed by some of that stuff you’re heaving out there. Your own mellow takes a pounding, for that matter. If you come to Facebook to share family pictures, you don’t necessarily want to have political posts popping up all the time. And vice versa.
Facebook is a great idea, but it needs a method of seamless differentiation among topics, so you can consciously choose how you’re going to interact with the universe of other people’s stuff, rather than having Facebook algorithms steering you or second-guessing you. In fact, the optimum user interface could be somewhat different for, say, politics versus sports, versus animal advocacy or intricate discussions of religious doctrine. It might well be better to feel like you’re moving from one mode to another, or from one “place” to another, to interact on different kinds of topics.
Someone is going to come up with a way to do that. You’ll be able to separate what interests you and decide how much to interact with what topics. Maybe there will be Seven Thematic Daughters of Facebook. They’ll still make money packaging you as the product. Heck, they’ll make even more. But the integration of Next-Gen Facebook with your moving thought life will be smarter.
Someone will also come up with an *even more important concept,* and that’s how to have a Facebook-like interface among hundreds of millions of people, without it having to all be run by a single company via a single backbone. Distributed, opt-in/opt-out, situational, on-demand centralization. It’s coming.
The highly centralized infrastructure of today’s Internet and social media will be broken up. If nothing else, having the operation of social media subject to government controls imposed by China, Russia, and several dozen other countries with bad track records will drive the felt need for alternatives. The horrifying spectacle of European governments cracking down on disfavored Internet speech could be an even more proximate catalyst.
Or, indeed, it’s the egregious political bias of the existing media monopolies that will do it. Google has an add-on now that will literally change the wording of content you access, so you never have to see phrasing you don’t like. A writer can type “pro-life” all day long, and Google will make sure you never have to see anything but “anti-choice.”
The converse service is not available, however. You can’t ask Google to render “pro-choice” for you as “pro-abortion.” Not an option.
People will escape the straitjacket of these social media monopolies, and the monopolies’ aspiration to backhandedly strong-arm millions of their fellow men on freedom of thought. Count on it.
The solution isn’t regulation. It’s competition and technological evolution. The throes in which Zuckerberg and Facebook find themselves today are salutary, because they’re a harbinger of the Facebook monolith collapsing.
But if “everybody” is blinded to everything but Facebook, and thinks the only solution is quasi-governmental regulation of speech (or full-frontal governmental regulation, for that matter), it will shortly become illegal to compete with and transcend the centralized Facebook model.
If we go the “Regulate Now!” route, a competitor to Facebook, started by conservatives and fostering free speech for all, will be just as subject to the liberty-killing rule framework as Facebook is.
You won’t be allowed to start a competitor to Facebook and achieve a different result.
Would that limitation help you, or would it help totalitarians? Exactly.
We mustn’t march over a cliff with the regulatory impulse, on the false belief that we can manage it and stay ahead of it. We aren’t meant to regulate each other’s thought and speech that way. It always leads to ruin. Trying to do it has never worked as intended in all of human history, and it isn’t going to start now.