“Social license is being harvested to reset the capitalist system – under the guise of a climate emergency and saving the planet. This we know: the planet will not be saved by those that have destroyed it.”
“Social license is being harvested to reset the capitalist system – under the guise of a climate emergency and saving the planet. This we know: the planet will not be saved by those that have destroyed it.”
President Trump speaks in Virginia on Election Day. | Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Democrats have worried that Trump would declare a premature victory via social media.
Twitter and Facebook both labeled a post President Trump shared at the end of Election Day in which he baselessly said the election is being “stolen” from him. Twitter took more aggressive action by warning users that the post is “potentially misleading” and slowing its reach; Facebook posted a label saying that ballots could take days or weeks to count.
In fact, it’s standard process in the United States for votes to be counted well after election night, and that’s even more anticipated this year given the record volume of mail-in ballots due to people staying at home during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Democrats had been worried about this very scenario — that Trump would declare a premature victory via social media — for months leading up to the election, and had been pressing social media companies for more details on how they would respond. Trump’s posts come ahead of a speech he’s expected to give on broadcast television, in which major networks have said they would fact-check false claims by Trump in near real time.
Just as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was finishing his televised speech to say that he thinks he’s “on track” to win the election, Trump posted on his Facebook and Twitter accounts claims that “We are up BIG, but they are trying to “STEAL” the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Poles [sic] are closed!”
A few minutes after Trump posted this, it appears that his account deleted and reposted the tweet after fixing a spelling error; his first tweet had spelled it as “Poles.” Regardless, Twitter labeled the spell-checked version of Trump’s tweet with a warning label for violating its policies against civic integrity. Twitter’s label covered the content of Trump’s tweet — so that you can only see the actual post if you click in to a note that says the content in the tweet is “disputed” and “might be misleading about an election or other civic process.” Twitter has seemingly also prevented users from replying to, liking, or sharing the tweet without comment.
Shortly after Twitter moderated Trump’s post, Facebook also labeled Trump’s identical post on Facebook with a less prominent warning label stating that “Final results may be different from initial vote counts, as ballot counting will continue for days or weeks,” and a link to voting information. Unlike Twitter, Facebook has not limited people’s ability to reply to or share the post.
Once again, it seems that Twitter took the lead over Facebook in more decisively moderating Trump’s comments. But as Trump continues to comment on the results of an incomplete election in which key battleground states are expected to spend the next few days or more finalizing their counts, both companies will likely keep having to deal with these kinds of unproven claims about the results of the election.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies before the Senate Commerce Committee on October 28, 2020. | Greg Nash/Getty Images
In the end, the Section 230 hearing didn’t have much to do with Section 230.
CEOs from two of the biggest companies in the world (and Twitter) testified in front of the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday in a hearing that was billed as a deliberation over Section 230. It ended up being more about castigating social media platforms both for censoring voices too much and for not censoring them enough.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey appeared before an almost entirely virtual panel of legislators, none of whom seemed particularly thrilled with the CEOs’ work. But their complaints differed depending on their political party. Republicans generally used the hearing to scold the companies for censoring conservative voices to the extent that they may influence the outcome of the election in Biden’s favor. Democrats objected to having a hearing at all and asked the CEOs what they were doing to suppress violent extremism and election interference on their platforms.
If nothing else, the hearings showed a bipartisan dislike and mistrust of social media platforms and a desire to do something about them.
The hearing was titled “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?” — that bad behavior being, to its vocal conservative opponents, social media platforms censoring political viewpoints with which they disagree. But the law is much bigger than that. Section 230 allows websites to host content from users without being liable for it. For instance, you can sue a Twitter user for a defamatory tweet, but you can’t sue Twitter itself. This is what enables these sites to exist in the first place. Without immunity from lawsuits over third-party content, platforms wouldn’t allow it at all.
The law also allows platforms to moderate user content as they see fit without losing that immunity, a fact that has become a major sticking point for conservatives who feel that platforms are unfairly censoring them. While Attorney General Bill Barr and several Republican legislators want to change Section 230 to require websites to be “politically neutral” in moderation decisions, President Trump has called for an outright repeal of the law. In fact, the president repeated that demand while Wednesday’s hearing was still in progress:
The USA doesn’t have Freedom of the Press, we have Suppression of the Story, or just plain Fake News. So much has been learned in the last two weeks about how corrupt our Media is, and now Big Tech, maybe even worse. Repeal Section 230!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 28, 2020
Democrats have their own issues with Section 230 and Big Tech in general. But in the hearing, those concerns took a back seat to their grievances against its timing and the pro-Trump messages they believed committee Republicans were using it to convey.
Most Republicans barely mentioned Section 230 and instead focused on social media moderation and a perceived silencing of conservative voices, the oft-noted examples of such being President Trump’s fact-checked tweets and the New York Post’s story on Hunter Biden, which Twitter and Facebook initially limited the spread of. There were also several questions about the political ideologies of employees and people who make moderation decisions, with the implication being that very few of them are conservative.
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) were especially emphatic about these points. Cruz, a frequent critic of Section 230, even advertised his appearance at the hearing on Twitter and Facebook the night before, calling it a “Free Speech Showdown,” complete with custom art that resembled a poster for a boxing match. Cruz opened his questions by saying the CEOs testifying before him “collectively pose the single greatest threat to free speech in America and the greatest threat we have to free and fair elections.” His use of his time didn’t really get better from there.
“Mr. Dorsey, who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear, and why do you persist in behaving as a Democratic Super PAC?” Cruz demanded. Dorsey responded that he is not in charge of those things. Cruz then retweeted several news articles containing his quote as well as posting his own video of it, indicating that his question to Dorsey was meant more for political theater than anything else.
Johnson tried to nail the CEOs down on how many of their employees are liberal and how many are conservative. In response, Dorsey said his company doesn’t keep track of employees’ politics, Pichai said he believed his employees have many different viewpoints, and Zuckerberg said he didn’t know for sure but assumes Facebook skews liberal — which was the only answer Johnson seemed to believe.
Several Republicans also pointed out that Twitter let untrue or violent tweets from other world leaders stay up while punishing Trump for his tweets, even though, as Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) said, they are “true.” One example was a series of tweets from Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that seemed to promote violence against Israel, which are still on the platform.
“We did not find those to violate our terms of service because we consider them sabre-rattling, which is part of the speech of world leaders in concert with other countries,” Dorsey said. “Speech against our own people or a country’s own citizens, we believe, is different and can cause more immediate harm.”
Some Democrats used their time to criticize the timing and subject of the hearing, calling it part of a coordinated Republican effort to bully platforms into keeping conservative-leaning content up, even if it violates their policies, as well as to amplify the New York Post’s story to try to influence the outcome of the election. Others brought up how social media platforms have facilitated violent extremist groups to meet and organize and foreign powers to influence the elections. They asked the CEOs what they plan to do to prevent or squelch this content on their respective platforms as the election approaches, and whether they would pledge to stop or prevent election interference on their platforms. Dorsey, Pichai, and Zuckerberg all pledged to do so.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) noted that Facebook makes more money when people spend more time on it, and divisive political content has been shown to contribute to that engagement.
“Does that bother you, what it’s done to our politics?” she asked.
Zuckerberg said the platform is designed to show users the content that’s most important to them.
“Most of the content on the systems is not political, it’s things like making sure you can see when your cousin had her baby,” he said.
“That’s not what I’m talking about, the cousins and the babies here,” Klobuchar said. “I’m talking about conspiracy theories … I think it’s been corrosive.”
But some senators actually took the time to ask the CEOs seemingly genuine questions about their moderation policies and algorithms as well as how Section 230 could be re-written to provide more clarity to users. Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV) asked if giving Section 230’s “otherwise objectionable” rule for the type of content platforms are allowed to moderate more specific guidelines would be a solution. Zuckerberg noted that having to spell out which content is objectionable and which is not would limit their ability to moderate bullying or harassment. Dorsey and Zuckerberg said multiple times during the hearing that they would be open to increased transparency on their platforms with regard to moderation decisions.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who proposed a bipartisan bill about Section 230, said he hoped to have “good faith” discussion about the law after the election. A future hearing about Section 230 is certainly possible regardless of the election’s outcome, as Trump’s feelings are well-known and Biden has said he is in favor of revoking the law — a stance that a campaign official told Recode hasn’t changed.
The co-author of Section 230, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is not a member of the Commerce Committee and so wasn’t at the hearing. But he wasn’t quiet about it, issuing a statement along the lines of many Democrats’ complaints.
“After watching the hearing today, I don’t believe my Republican colleagues have read the First Amendment, let alone Section 230,” Wyden said. “Their obsession with forcing private companies to print misinformation, lies and hate speech is unconstitutional and lays bare how little this is about Section 230 and how much it is a transparent attempt to work the refs a week before the election.”
Wyden added, “Today’s sad spectacle shows how far this body is from having a rational debate about how to make the internet a better place.”
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Near the close of the first year of the Trump presidency, executives at Facebook were briefed on some major changes to its News Feed—the code that determines which of the zillions of posts on the platform any one of us is shown when we look at Facebook. The story the company has publicly told is that it was working to “bring people closer together” by showing us more posts from friends and family, and to prioritize “trusted” and “informative” sources of news. The changes would also reduce how much news most people see, and therefore decrease revenue for many publishers.
What wasn’t publicly known until now is that Facebook actually ran experiments to see how the changes would affect publishers—and when it found that some of them would have a dramatic impact on the reach of right-wing “junk sites,” as a former employee with knowledge of the conversations puts it, the engineers were sent back to lessen those impacts. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, they came back in January 2018 with a second iteration that dialed up the harm to progressive-leaning news organizations instead.
In fact, we have now learned that executives were even shown a slide presentation that highlighted the impact of the second iteration on about a dozen specific publishers—and Mother Jones was singled out as one that would suffer, while the conservative site the Daily Wire was identified as one that would benefit. These changes were pushed by Republican operatives working in Facebook’s Washington office under Vice President of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan (who later made headlines for demonstratively supporting his friend Brett Kavanaugh during confirmation hearings).
Asked for comment, Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone would only say, “We did not make changes with the intent of impacting individual publishers. We only made updates after they were reviewed by many different teams across many disciplines to ensure the rationale was clear and consistent and could be explained to all publishers.”
Facebook used its monopolistic power to boost and suppress specific publishers’ content—the essence of every Big Brother fear about the platforms.
Glossed over in that non-answer answer is the fact that the changes were made with at least the knowledge of the disparate impact they would have on specific publishers. And that those changes appear to have been based, at least in part, on internal partisan concerns.
Stone would not comment on the slide deck. But according to someone who has seen it, it contained bar graphs indicating how much reach various news organizations would gain or lose under the revamped algorithm. One chart showed the Daily Wire, a site headed by conservative pundit Ben Shapiro that routinely shares false claims and malignant ideas (being transgender is a “delusion,” abortion providers are “assassins,” US Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., is not “loyal to America”). Another graph showed Mother Jones, whose rigorously fact-checked investigative work has garnered many of journalism’s highest awards, including—just months before that Facebook presentation—being honored as Magazine of the Year at our industry’s version of the Academy Awards.
Allow us to pause briefly while we scream out of the window. This kind of false equivalence is enraging enough when lazy pundits do it. But when the most powerful media company in the world uses it as the basis for deciding what information users should see or not see, it’s more than that. It’s an attack on your ability to stay informed. It’s an attack on democracy.
If you are able to support our nonprofit journalism—donations from readers are the most important source of revenue for Mother Jones—please do that here.
To be perfectly clear: Facebook used its monopolistic power to boost and suppress specific publishers’ content—the essence of every Big Brother fear about the platforms, and something Facebook and other companies have been strenuously denying for years.
It’s also, ironically, what conservatives have consistently accused Facebook of doing to them, with the perverse but entirely intended effect of causing it to bend over backward for them instead. This past Thursday the Daily Wire’s Shapiro inveighed against Twitter and Facebook suppressing a widely discredited New York Post story on Hunter Biden: “Social media companies are so afraid of Democrats that they will voluntarily do what Democrats want so Democrats don’t come after them. This is a blackmail routine by Democrats against social media.” He calls it an “inside job” at Facebook and Twitter in which “top Democrats at these places decide that it’s time to shut down material.”
Replace “Democrats” with “Republicans” in those comments from Shapiro—who is also one of the conservative luminaries Zuckerberg has invited to his home for hours-long gab sessions—and you have exactly what appears to have happened in January 2018.
“The problem was that the progressive outlets were real [news] outlets like yours and the right ones were garbage outlets. You guys were one of the outlets who got singled out to balance the ledger.”
So why was Facebook changing the algorithm? In the wake of the 2016 election, it had been battling backlash for amplifying political disinformation and propaganda, foreign and domestic. But the problem that really concerned its executives was this: People were turning away from their product. After more than a year of overheated and often toxic discussion, engagement on Facebook was falling.
In late 2017, Zuckerberg told his engineers and data scientists to design algorithmic “ranking changes” that would dial down the temperature. One tool for this was prioritizing what Facebook called “meaningful social interactions” among users. Another was giving priority to news sources that Facebook’s user surveys determined to be trustworthy and informative.
But, says the former Facebook employee, there was a hitch: Everyone knew that most of the untrustworthy “junk” on Facebook, when it came to politics, originated with “conservative/conspiratorial” sites. And while Facebook was under fire from both right and left, its chief worry—now that Republicans had regulatory power in Washington—was “getting Trump off their back.”
Conservatives had been very effective at working the refs by accusing the platforms of liberal bias, especially after a widely publicized 2016 incident in which platform moderators were accused of suppressing pro-Trump content. After that, says a former employee who worked on News Feed, it was made clear that “we can’t do a ranking change that would hurt Breitbart—even if that change would make the News Feed better.” (Breitbart News, where Steve Bannon was still executive chair, seems to have been a particular obsession.)
So, too, with the January 2018 changes: “Republican lobbyists in the DC office said, ‘Hold on, how will it affect Breitbart?’” recalls another ex-employee. Testing showed that the proposed changes would take a “huge chunk” out of Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, the Daily Wire, and the Daily Caller. There was “enormous pushback. They freaked out and said, ‘We can’t do this.’”
The code was tweaked, and executives were given a new presentation showing less impact on these conservative sites and more harm to progressive-leaning publishers—including Mother Jones. “The problem was that the progressive outlets were real [news] outlets like yours,” recalls the ex-employee, “and the right ones were garbage outlets. You guys were one of the outlets who got singled out to balance the ledger.”
It was not the first time that Kaplan had stepped up to protect conservative disinformation. The Washington Post has reported that in December 2016, senior leaders were briefed on an internal investigation known as Project P (for propaganda) showing that right-wing accounts, most of them based overseas and most with “financial motives,” were behind a lot of the viral disinformation on the platform. But Kaplan objected to disabling these accounts because “it will disproportionately affect conservatives.”
More recently, the newsletter Popular Info reported last year that whenever conservative sites were accused of violating Facebook’s policies—as when Shapiro’s Daily Wire allegedly created a network of pages to increase traffic—Kaplan stepped up to protect them. (The Daily Wire’s co-CEO Jeremy Boreing told us, “We endeavor to abide by the ever-changing rules of the platforms on which we operate, but we’re also an aggressive organization.”) It was also reportedly Kaplan who in 2018 pushed for the Daily Caller, which has been regularly excoriated for publishing misinformation, including fake nudes of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to be brought in as one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners.
Back to January 2018. The graphs and slides appear to have appeased Kaplan. Zuckerberg signed off on the algorithm changes. And soon, the million-plus readers who had chosen to follow Mother Jones saw fewer of our articles in their feeds. Average traffic from Facebook to our content decreased 37 percent between the six months prior to the change and the six months after.
How much of the information you see on this powerful platform is shaped by partisan political considerations inside a company obsessed with avoiding regulation?
But the Daily Wire continued to thrive, as did the Daily Caller, Breitbart, and Fox News. Boreing says the Daily Wire saw “a significant unexplained decline in traffic in October 2017, which began to recover in December,” and that nothing “pronounced” happened as a result of the January changes. And while social media data is notoriously hard to measure, Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen, using data from the analytics company Newswhip, found that after the changes, right-wing sites saw, if anything, more engagement on Facebook. And though we don’t know how the algorithm has evolved since then, to this day the news stories with the highest Facebook engagement often come from right-wing opinion sites. This summer the Daily Wire had the most Facebook engagements of any English-language publisher in the world, according to Newswhip.
In other words, for more than two years, the news diets of Facebook audiences have been spiked with hyperconservative content—content that would have reached far fewer people had the company not deliberately tweaked the dials to keep it coming, even as it throttled independent journalism. For the former employee, the episode was emblematic of the false equivalencies and anti-democratic impulses that have characterized Facebook’s actions in the age of Trump, and it became “one of the many reasons I left Facebook.”
When Zuckerberg announced these algorithm changes in January 2018, he talked about “bringing people closer together” and fighting “sensationalism, misinformation and polarization.” Unmentioned went the discussions about helping conservative publishers.
In fact, Facebook seems to have not just elided but actively concealed what it was doing. Several of us at Mother Jones were in meetings with company officials during this period. At a journalism conference, one of us was whisked into their corporate suite, given a logoed water bottle, and complimented about the work our team had done to share quality journalism on the platform. Ben Dreyfuss, who heads up our social media work, was told by the company’s News Partnerships team that the “trusted news” algorithm changes should have no different impact on Mother Jones than on other “quality publishers.”
How many other sites were similarly throttled? The ex-employee doesn’t recall the other publishers named in the deck, but Slate, for one, has reported a dramatic drop in its Facebook referrals after January 2018. Joe Romm, the founder of ThinkProgress, noted that site’s traffic took a “big hit.” Did the changes affect outlets like the New York Times and National Public Radio? And how was this actually done? Which criteria were changed, how broadly, and for how long? And how much of the information you see on this powerful platform is shaped by partisan political considerations inside a company obsessed with avoiding regulation?
There’s a deck out there that could help unlock some of the answers. Publishers and regulators need to see it.
Tomorrow, the House Antitrust Subcommittee will hear testimony from the CEOs of the Big Four tech firms: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Aside from possibly bringing together more wealth than ever before assembled in a congressional hearing, the event marks a triumph for a nascent movement of antitrust scholars who have revived the debate about concentrated economic power in the United States. Members of Congress will be able to detail how large tech platforms abuse their position to invade user privacy, muscle out or buy up competitors, and gouge suppliers and partners—behaviors that ultimately damage innovation and exacerbate inequality.
These problems have only grown worse with the coronavirus pandemic, as smaller businesses succumb to the economic damage, and changing patterns in teleworking and retail accelerate in ways that make Americans more reliant on technologies produced by a few firms. Shares in the Big Four, along with Microsoft, Netflix, and Tesla, added $291 billion in market value in just one day last week. The dangers of Big Tech domination are more profound now than they were even a few months ago.
But the hearing may also have the unintended consequence of associating the problem of economic concentration with Big Tech alone. The truth is that, even if Congress somehow decreed the breakup of all four tech giants, the U.S. would still have an astounding number of industries controlled by a tiny number of firms. That’s because the structure of modern capitalism favors companies that operate at once-unimaginable scale, in the absence of a government will to prevent monopolies from forming.
Lawmakers and the public should be concerned about the surveillance networks by which Facebook and Google—which dominate the digital-advertising market—track users, build data profiles on them, and serve them customized ads. But millions of rural Americans cannot access the internet to begin with, in part because telecom companies harass, fight, and induce state legislatures to pass laws restricting municipal broadband. Across America, people send their kids to Starbucks parking lots to piggyback on the wifi and complete their homework.
Amazon’s rapidly expanding e-commerce empire—and the potential consequences for Main Streets and municipal tax bases across the country—is definitely worth worrying about. But among the other forces squeezing out small retailers are dollar stores, a market segment dominated by two firms that together have about six times more outlets in America than Walmart. Last summer in Marlinton, West Virginia, I saw a Dollar General right next door to a Family Dollar. Despite the pandemic, Dollar General still plans to open 1,000 new stores in 2020.
Software developers who want to sell apps to iPhone users must do so through Apple’s App Store, which spells out rules that they must follow and collects up to 30 percent of sales. This is little different from the situation of small farmers, who must raise livestock to the exacting specifications of the meatpacking giants and can lose their livelihoods on those companies’ whims. And just as Amazon sometimes undercuts the smaller third-party sellers that use its platform, Big Agriculture competes directly with smaller suppliers; the top four hog firms, which control around two-thirds of the market, typically own farms, slaughterhouses, warehouses, and distribution trucks, every step from the pig trough to the dinner table.
Whether you are shopping for pacemakers, sanitary napkins, or wholesale office supplies, you will find very few sellers. You think you have choices in grocery aisles or at car-rental counters, but the majority of consumer products come from a handful of companies. Competition is hardly stiff when even many store brands are just renamed versions of market-leading products; at Costco, the batteries come from Duracell and the coffee from Starbucks.
To focus the discussion of monopoly on the tech sector is to minimize the scope of a problem long in the making. Forty years ago, the government essentially stopped policing industry concentration. The conservative legal theorist Robert Bork—later a failed Supreme Court nominee—and his allies in the law-and-economics movement argued that any merger making businesses more efficient must be approved, and that a larger scale generally increases efficiency. Bork’s analysis gained enormous power in the courts and the Reagan administration. The lawyers and the bankers who handled mergers and acquisitions loved it.
All Americans suffer from the wave of corporate consolidation that followed. Workers have fewer bidders for their labor and cannot secure decent wages. The number of start-up businesses has plummeted since the late 1970s. Products and services grow worse, and companies with little competition have no incentive to improve them. Concentrated supply chains are more vulnerable to disruption, as the coronavirus crisis has shown. Fewer firms shovel more economic gains to smaller groups of executives. Politics becomes unbalanced as monopolists bend lawmakers and regulators to their will. In a variety of industries, the pandemic has added to the burden on small companies while heightening the advantages enjoyed by their larger rivals that can afford to wait the catastrophe out.
The unique challenges presented by Big Tech at least receive generous media coverage. But headlines about the damage non-tech behemoths have done are waiting to be written. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker are investigating a budding scandal of large meatpackers using the coronavirus crisis to claim shortages at home while shipping record levels of pork to China. A decades-long consolidation of the banking industry was routinely justified in the name of consumer welfare, but millions of Americans are still unserved—a problem that became evident amid America’s fumbling delivery of stimulus payments to citizens. Market concentration is an underappreciated factor in the destruction of Black-owned businesses.
Prohibiting mergers and breaking up companies that contribute to such negative effects would allow America to be governed democratically, rather than by the corporate boardroom. Congress should scrutinize the concentration in internet search, social media, e-commerce, and telecom hardware. But to topple monopolies, lawmakers need to cast a wider net.
A loose network of Facebook groups that took root across the country in April to organize protests over coronavirus stay-at-home orders has become a hub of misinformation and conspiracy theories that have pivoted to a variety of new targets. Their latest: Black Lives Matter and the nationwide protests of racial injustice.
These groups, which now boast a collective audience of more than 1 million members, are still thriving after most states started lifting virus restrictions.
And many have expanded their focus.
One group transformed itself last month from “Reopen California” to “California Patriots Pro Law & Order,” with recent posts mocking Black Lives Matter or changing the slogan to “White Lives Matter.” Members have used profane slurs to refer to Black people and protesters, calling them “animals,” “racist” and “thugs”— a direct violation of Facebook’s hate speech standards.
The post Facebook Groups Pivot To Attacks On Black Lives Matter appeared first on PopularResistance.Org.
Following the president’s lead, Republicans are all trying to chip away at Section 230.
Section 230, the law that is often credited as the reason why the internet as we know it exists, could be facing its greatest threat yet. A seemingly coordinated attack on the law is unfolding this week from the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress. It follows complaints that platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube unfairly censor conservative speech. Though some are framing the efforts as a way to promote free speech, others say the result will be exactly the opposite.
Following President Trump’s executive order aimed at social media companies he thinks are censoring right-wing voices, the most direct actions taken against Section 230 arrived this week in the form of a new bill from Sen. Josh Hawley and a set of recommendations from Attorney General Bill Barr.
Hawley, a 40-year-old Republican from Missouri who has made no secret of his intentions regarding Section 230, is proposing a bill that would require large platforms to enforce their rules equally to stop a perceived targeting of conservatives and conservative commentary. Hawley is also rumored to be preparing another Section 230-related bill to add to his growing collection.
Meanwhile, Barr’s Department of Justice said it is calling for new legislation that, in certain cases, would remove the civil liability protections offered by Section 230. If platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter somehow encouraged content that violates federal law, these platforms would be treated as “bad samaritans” and would lose the immunity offered by Section 230. Like Hawley’s bill, the DOJ’s proposed rules would also force platforms to clearly define and equally enforce content rules.
Civil rights advocates say they’re concerned that some of these proposed measures may end up becoming law, leading to all sorts of unintended consequences and stifling speech — which will ultimately punish internet users far more than the websites.
“I do think there is a very serious risk to Section 230 right now,” Kathleen Ruane, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Recode. “And they all concern me, not for the platforms, but for users and online free expression.”
Section 230 is part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. It says internet platforms that host third-party content are not civilly liable for that content. There are a few exceptions, such as intellectual property or content related to sex trafficking, but otherwise the law allows platforms to be as hands-off as they want to be with user-generated content.
Here’s an example: If a Twitter user were to tweet something defamatory, the user could be sued for libel, but Twitter itself could not. This law has allowed websites and services that rely on user-generated content to exist and grow. If these sites could be held responsible for the actions of their users, they would either have to strictly moderate everything those users produce — which is impossible at scale — or not host any third-party content at all. Either way, the demise of Section 230 could be the end of sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Yelp, forums, message boards, and basically any platform that’s based on user-generated content.
The law also gives those services that immunity even if they moderate certain content. This is why, for instance, Twitter can take down tweets that it deems in violation of its terms of service. Sen. Ron Wyden, who was one of the architects of Section 230, has likened these provisions to a sword and shield for platforms.
But as some of these platforms have increased in size, scope, and power, there has been increasing support on both sides of the aisle to chip away at the law that allowed them to flourish free of much accountability.
Democrats have supported laws that crack down on websites that facilitate sexual abuse. The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) made platforms legally responsible for third-party content related to sex trafficking. The two bills, known together as FOSTA-SESTA, overwhelmingly passed in the House and Senate, and President Trump signed them into law in 2018.
More recently, there’s the bipartisan Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Internet Technologies Act (EARN IT), which would require companies to follow a yet-to-be-defined set of “best practices” or else lose Section 230 immunity if third parties post child pornography on their platforms. Civil rights advocates worry what those “best practices” will be and how they might stifle all speech.
Many Republicans see altering Section 230 as a way to force platforms to fit their definition of “politically neutral.” Typically, this translates into restricting a website or service’s ability to moderate content.
This seems to be the goal of Hawley’s bill, which is called the Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act. Cosponsored by Republican Sens. Marco Rubio, Mike Braun, Tom Cotton, and Kelly Loeffler, the bill would force large tech companies — that is, companies that have 30 million American users or 300 million users worldwide, as well as $1.5 billion annual revenue — to act in “good faith” when enforcing their content rules. Acting in “good faith” here means that platforms must clearly define what their rules are and enforce them consistently, rather than, say, targeting certain types of political speech, as some conservatives believe they currently do.
Users who feel that their content is being unfairly removed would also have a new tool for reprisal. Hawley’s bill gives individual users who believe they’re being censored the right to sue companies for at least $5,000 as well as attorney’s fees. You can imagine how many people would be happy to take advantage of that, which would give platforms a big incentive to comply lest they be flooded with millions of lawsuits.
“It is impossible to moderate user-generated content at scale perfectly, or even well, and this bill would weaponize mistakes,” Aaron Mackey, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Recode. “There are legitimate concerns about the dominance of a handful of online platforms and their power to limit internet users’ speech. But rather than addressing those concerns, this bill bluntly encourages frivolous litigation and will lead to massive trolling.”
This isn’t Republicans’ only recent attempt at limiting Section 230. In 2019, Hawley introduced the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, which would have required the Federal Trade Commission to declare platforms unbiased to get Section 230 protections. The same year, Rep. Louie Gohmert introduced the Biased Algorithm Deterrence Act, which would remove Section 230 protections from companies that moderated content using algorithms. Both were responses to conservative complaints that companies including Facebook, Twitter, and Google were selectively enforcing their content guidelines, de-platforming, shadow banning, or otherwise censoring conservatives while mostly leaving liberals alone. Sen. Ted Cruz has also been a vocal critic of platforms in this regard, erroneously asserting that Section 230 includes some kind of political neutrality requirement even though the law doesn’t say anything to that effect.
Those complaints have gained steam recently. Despite being one of the biggest beneficiaries of the influence and reach these platforms can afford, President Trump had a recent tantrum over Twitter’s decision to fact-check two of his tweets, which contained inaccurate information about mail-in ballots. Soon after, Trump signed his executive order aimed at social media companies, which said platforms that go beyond “good faith” content moderation should not be entitled to Section 230 protections. An executive order is not a law and therefore its impact on an actual law is likely limited, but the right’s intention to go after big tech companies was made very clear.
While recent bills in Congress have been markedly divisive, Barr’s proposed reforms manage to incorporate the issues that both Democrats and Republicans have raised with Section 230. The DOJ called this a “productive middle ground.” Note that the department’s proposals are simply suggestions for the laws Congress should enact that would actually change things, but they, like the executive order, signal how and why the Trump administration hopes to go after or control large platforms.
One of Barr’s recommendations is to withhold immunity from “truly bad actors,” which are defined as sites promoting, soliciting, or facilitating content that violates federal law. Sites must also “maintain the ability to assist government authorities to obtain content (i.e. evidence) in a comprehensible, readable, and usable format.” This would be the end of services that use end-to-end encryption, which Barr has a particular problem with, and which civil liberties advocates believe will be the ultimate effect of the EARN IT act.
There’s also a section that addresses “open discourse and greater transparency.” Here, Barr recommends something along the lines of Hawley’s bill — that platforms must have clear terms of service for what is and isn’t allowed on their platforms and moderate content accordingly. This includes defining “good faith,” similar to Hawley’s bill, as well as removing the part of the law that says platforms can moderate content that is “otherwise objectionable,” as Barr believes the term is too vague and has given platforms the freedom to remove anything simply by saying it’s objectionable in some way.
Wyden was not impressed by the recommendations to change the law he helped create.
“This jumbled mess of a proposal is yet another cynical attempt by the Trump administration to bully the tech companies into letting the president and his cronies post lies and conspiracies on their sites, and is clearly not intended to become law,” the Oregon senator told Recode. “Congress should stay far away from this disingenuous plan that would gut the ability of tech companies to take down hateful slime, spawn endless frivolous lawsuits, and chill Americans’ free speech online.”
In the background of all of this is a growing public sentiment against powerful tech companies due, in part, to how they help spread fake news and the incredible amounts of personal information about us they collect. That has surely emboldened politicians to act accordingly. Not only do we have multiple bills against Section 230, but there are also ongoing efforts to break up the biggest tech companies through antitrust investigations both in the United States and the European Union.
“The Department of Justice has concluded that the time is ripe to realign the scope of Section 230 with the realities of the modern internet,” the recommendations say.
This all adds up to a very real possibility that Section 230, at least as we know it, won’t be around for much longer. Hawley’s bill, which has no bipartisan support as of now, might go the way his past bills did — that is to say, nowhere. But the EARN IT Act does have bipartisan support and, like FOSTA-SESTA which did pass, targets child sexual abuse. Few politicians may want to vote against a law that says it’s meant to combat child porn, regardless of any unintended consequences.
The consequences of changing Section 230 will inevitably change the internet and what we’re allowed to do on it. Ruane, from the ACLU, points to the impact of FOSTA-SESTA, which she says “has been a complete and total disaster,” and its unintended consequences as a guide for what we can expect. Faced with the new law, online platforms didn’t seek to target specific content that might relate to or facilitate sex trafficking; they simply took down everything sex or sex work-related to ensure they wouldn’t get in trouble.
“It was only supposed to apply to advertisements for sex trafficking. That is absolutely not what happened,” Ruane said. “All platforms adopted much broader content moderation policies that applied to a lot of LGBTQ-related speech, sex education-related speech, and … sites where [sex workers] built communities where they shared information to maintain safety.”
She added, “It is astonishing to me that that law is being used as an example of what we should do in the future because of all the clear harms that censoring a broad amount of speech has caused.”
As for Wyden, he wrote in a recent op-ed that laws that force platforms to be “politically neutral” may not encourage more speech, as conservatives who favor those laws claim, but rather suppress it. Facebook has taken a similar stance, saying on Wednesday that changing Section 230’s liability protections would “mean less speech of all kinds appearing online.”
Section 230 won’t change tomorrow, if it changes at all. But a series of seemingly coordinated attacks from two of the three branches of government certainly shows some momentum toward the possibility of change.
On one hand, the internet has profoundly changed since the law was introduced 25 years ago and it’s not unreasonable to believe that the law should change with it. On the other, those changes likely won’t have the impact on the companies they’re targeting that lawmakers and the administration seem to desire. The impact will largely fall on the people who use the platforms those companies run: You.
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Spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic, global capitalism is on the brink of a new round of worldwide restructuring based on a much greater digitalization of the entire global economy and society. This restructuring began in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession but the changing social and economic conditions brought about by the pandemic will vastly accelerate the process. It is likely to heighten the concentration of capital worldwide and worsen social inequality. Enabled by digital applications, the ruling groups — unless they are pushed to change course by mass pressure from below — will turn to ratcheting up the global police state to contain the coming social upheavals.
The emerging post-pandemic capitalist paradigm is based on a digitalization and application of so-called fourth industrial revolution technologies. This new wave of technological development is made possible by a more advanced information technology. Led by artificial intelligence (AI) and the collection, processing and analysis of immense amounts of data (“big data”), the emerging technologies include machine learning, automation and robotics, nano- and biotechnology, the Internet of Things (IoT), quantum and cloud computing, 3D printing, new forms of energy storage and autonomous vehicles, among others.
Computer and information technology (CIT), first introduced in the 1980s, provided the original basis for globalization. It allowed the emerging transnational capitalist class, or TCC, to coordinate and synchronize global production and therefore to put into place a globally integrated production and financial system into which every country has become incorporated. Just as the original introduction of CIT and the internet in the late 20th century profoundly transformed world capitalism, this second generation of digital-based technologies is now leading to a new round of worldwide restructuring that promises to have another transformative impact on the structures of the global economy, society and polity.
If the first generation of capitalist globalization from the 1980s involved the creation of a globally integrated production and financial system, the new wave of digitalization and the rise of platforms have facilitated since 2008 a very rapid transnationalization of digital-based services. By 2017, services accounted for some 70 percent of the total gross world product and included communications, informatics, digital and platform technology, e-commerce, financial services, professional and technical work, and a host of other non-tangible products such as film and music.
It is hard to underestimate just how rapid and extensive the current digital restructuring of the global economy and society is. According to United Nations data, the “sharing economy” — that is, activity mediated by platforms — will surge from $14 billion in 2014 to $335 billion by 2025. Worldwide shipments of 3D printers more than doubled in 2016, to over 450,000, and were expected to reach 6.7 million by the end of 2020. The global value of e-commerce is estimated to have reached $29 trillion in 2017, which is equivalent to 36 percent of global GDP in that year. Digitally deliverable service exports amounted in 2018 to $2.9 trillion, or 50 percent of global services exports. By 2019, global internet traffic was 66 times the volume of the entire global internet traffic in 2005, whereas global Internet Protocol (IP) traffic, a proxy for data flows, grew from about 100 gigabytes (GB) per day in 1992 to more than 45,000 GB per second in 2017. And yet the world is only in the early days of the data-driven economy; by 2022, global IP traffic is projected to reach 150,700 GB per second, fueled by more and more people coming online for the first time and by the expansion of the IoT.
The coronavirus pandemic has spotlighted how central digital services have become to the global economy. But more than shine this spotlight, the pandemic and its aftermath, to the extent that it accelerates digital restructuring, can be expected to result in a vast expansion of reduced-labor or laborless digital services, including all sorts of new telework arrangements, drone delivery, cash-free commerce, digitized finance (or fintech), tracking and other forms of surveillance, automated medical and legal services, and remote teaching involving pre-recorded instruction. The pandemic has boosted the efforts of the giant tech companies and their political agents to convert more and more areas of the economy into these new digital realms.
The giant tech companies have flourished during the contagion, their digital services becoming essential to the pandemic economy, as hundreds of millions of workers worldwide moved to remote work at home or through enhanced platforms, or became engaged in digitally driven service work, and as in-person services were replaced by remote digital services. The post-pandemic global economy will involve a more rapid and expansive application of digitalization to every aspect of global society, including war and repression.
Digitalization has been spurred on by the capitalist crisis. The coronavirus was but the spark that ignited the combustibility of a global economy that never fully recovered from the 2008 financial collapse and has been teetering on the brink of renewed crisis ever since. But the underlying structural causes of the 2008 debacle, far from resolved, have been steadily aggravated. Frenzied financial speculation, unsustainable debt, the plunder of public finance, overinflated tech stock, and state-organized militarized accumulation have kept the global economy sputtering along in recent years in the face of chronic stagnation and concealed its instability. (Militarized accumulation refers to the accumulation of capital — that is, profit-making, through ever-more expansive systems of warfare, transnational social control and repression.)
The post-pandemic global economy will involve a more rapid and expansive application of digitalization to every aspect of global society, including war and repression.
There are three types of capitalist crises. The first type is cyclical, or the business cycle, involving economic downturns or recessions approximately once a decade. There were recessions in the early 1980s, the early 1990s and at the turn of the century. The second type is structural and appears about once every 40 to 50 years, and the third is systemic, which I will refer to by way of conclusion. They are called structural or restructuring crises, because their resolution involves restructuring the capitalist system. The restructuring crisis of the 1930s Great Depression was resolved through the rise of a new type of capitalism based on redistribution and state intervention to regulate the market, and led to the social welfare systems of the 20th century. The next structural crisis hit in the 1970s and led to globalization and the rise of a TCC from the 1980s and on.
A new restructuring crisis began with the 2008 financial collapse. Leading the way in this restructuring were the giant tech companies — among them Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Tencent, Alibaba, Facebook and Google, and to which are now added Zoom and other companies boosted by the pandemic. These companies have experienced astonishing growth over the past decade. Apple and Microsoft registered an astounding market capitalization of $1.4 trillion each in 2020, followed by Amazon with $1.04 trillion, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) with $1.03 trillion, Samsung with $983 billion, Facebook with $604 trillion, and Alibaba and Tencent with some $600 billion and $500 billion, respectively. To give an idea of just how rapidly these tech behemoths have grown, Google’s market capitalization went from under $200 billion at the end of 2008 to over $1 trillion at the start of 2020, or a 500 percent increase. Meanwhile, in just two years, from 2015 to 2017, the combined value of all platform companies with a market capitalization of more than $100 million jumped by 67 percent, to more than $7 trillion.
A handful of largely U.S.-based tech firms that generate, extract and process data have absorbed enormous amounts of cash from transnational investors from around the world who, desperate for new investment opportunities, have poured billions of dollars into the tech and platform giants as an outlet for their surplus accumulated capital. Annual investment in CIT jumped from $17 billion in 1970, to $65 billion in 1980, then to $175 billion in 1990, $465 billion in 2000, and $654 billion in 2016, and then topped $800 billion in 2019. As capitalists invest these billions, the global banking and investment houses become interwoven with tech capital, as do businesses across the globe that are moving to cloud computing and AI. By the second decade of the century, the global economy came to be characterized above all by the twin processes of digitalization and financialization.
The rise of the digital economy involves a fusion of Silicon Valley with transnational finance capital and the military-industrial-security complex, giving rise to a new bloc of capital that appears to be at the very core of the emerging post-pandemic paradigm. This new bloc will emerge even more powerful than it was going into the health emergency, spurring a vast new centralization and concentration of capital on a global scale. At the head of this bloc, the tech behemoths are larger financial entities than most countries in the world and are able to wield enormous influence over capitalist states. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo showcased this emerging capital-state relation when, in early May, he appointed three tech billionaires — Eric Schmidt of Google; former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates; and Michael Bloomberg — to head up a Blue Ribbon Commission to come up with plans to outsource public schools, hospitals, policing and other public services to private tech companies. Such “public-private partnerships” privatize to capital traditional state functions while converting public funds into corporate subsidies.
The third leg in this triangulated bloc of capital is the military-industrial-security complex. As the tech industry emerged in the 1990s, it was conjoined to the military-industrial-security complex and the global police state. Over the years, for instance, Google has supplied mapping technology used by the U.S. Army in Iraq, hosted data for the CIA, indexed the National Security Agency’s vast intelligence databases, built military robots, co-launched a spy satellite with the Pentagon and leased its cloud computing platform to help police departments “predict” crime. Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and other tech giants are thoroughly intertwined with the military-industrial and security complex. The rise of the digital economy blurs the boundaries between military and civilian sectors of the economy and brings together finance, military-industrial and tech companies around a combined process of financial speculation and militarized accumulation.
Tech behemoths are larger financial entities than most countries in the world and are able to wield enormous influence over capitalist states.
Worldwide, total defense outlays grew by 50 percent from 2006 to 2015, from $1.4 trillion to $2.03 trillion, although this figure does not take into account secret budgets, contingency operations and “homeland security” spending. By 2018, private military companies employed some 15 million people around the world, while another 20 million people worked in private security. The new systems of warfare, social control and repression are driven by digital technology. The market for new social control systems made possible by digital technology runs into the hundreds of billions. The global biometrics market, for instance, was expected to jump from its $15 billion value in 2015 to $35 billion by 2020.
Crises provide transnational capital with the opportunity to restore profit levels by forcing greater productivity out of fewer workers. The first wave of CIT in the latter decades of the 20th century triggered explosive growth in productivity and productive capacities, while the new digital technologies promise to multiply such capacities many times over. Specifically, digitalization vastly increases what radical political economists, following Marx, refer to as the organic composition of capital, meaning that the portion of fixed capital in the form of machinery and technology tends to increase relative to variable capital in the form of labor.
In layman’s terms, digitalization greatly accelerates the process whereby machinery and technology replace human labor, thus expanding the ranks of those who are made surplus and marginalized. One National Bureau of Economic Research report found that each new robot introduced in a locale results in a loss of three to 5.6 jobs. In 1990, the top three carmakers in Detroit had a market capitalization of $36 billion and 1.2 million employees. In 2014, the top three firms in Silicon Valley, with a market capitalization of over $1 trillion, had only 137,000 employees. This increase in the organic composition of capital aggravates overaccumulation and social polarization, which has reached unprecedented levels worldwide. As is now well-known, just 1 percent of humanity owns over half of the world’s wealth and the top 20 percent own 94.5 percent of that wealth, while the remaining 80 percent have to make do with just 5.5 percent.
The apologists of global capitalism claim that the digital economy will bring high-skilled, high-paid jobs and resolve problems of social polarization and stagnation. Yet many so-called cognitive labor and gig workers face low wages, dull repetitive tasks and precariousness. As “big data” captures data on knowledge-based occupations at the workplace and in the market and then converts it into algorithms, this labor could itself be replaced by AI, autonomous vehicles and the other fourth industrial revolution technologies. Digital-driven production ultimately seeks to achieve what the Nike Corporation refers to as “engineering the labor out of the product.” The end game in this process, although still far away, is laborless production.
A 2017 United Nations report estimated that tens if not hundreds of millions of jobs would disappear in the coming years as a result of digitalization. As an example, the report estimated that more than 85 percent of retail workers in Indonesia and the Philippines were at risk. The report also said that the spread of online labor platforms would accelerate a “race to the bottom of working conditions with an increasing precarity.” A series of International Labor Organization (ILO) reports documented these conditions. A 1998 study found already in the late 20th century, some one-third of the global labor force was under- or unemployed. The ILO then reported in 2011 that 1.53 billion workers around the world were in “vulnerable” employment arrangements, representing more than 50 percent of the global workforce. Seven years later, in 2019, it concluded that a majority of the 3.5 billion workers in the world “experienced a lack of material well-being, economic security, equality opportunities or scope for human development.”
Crises provide transnational capital with the opportunity to restore profit levels by forcing greater productivity out of fewer workers.
Even before the pandemic hit, automation was spreading from industry and finance to all branches of services, even to fast food and agriculture. It is expected to eventually replace much professional work such as lawyers, financial analysts, doctors, journalists, accountants, insurance underwriters and librarians. AI-driven technologies are at this time becoming more widely adopted worldwide as a result of the conditions brought about by the contagion. The pandemic allows the TCC to massively push forward capitalist restructuring that it could not previously accomplish because of resistance to the digital takeover.
With heightened digitalization brought about by the pandemic, there will be tens or even hundreds of millions who lost their jobs but will not be reabsorbed into the labor force as technology takes over their former tasks. One University of Chicago study estimated that 42 percent of pandemic layoffs in the United States would result in permanent job loss. Moreover, large corporations will snatch up millions of small businesses forced into bankruptcy. Capitalists will use this mass unemployment as a lever to intensify exploitation of those with a job, to heighten discipline over the global working class and to push surplus labor into greater marginality.
The pandemic lockdowns served as dry runs for how digitalization may allow the dominant groups to restructure space and to exercise greater control over the movement of labor. Governments around the world decreed states of emergency and violently repressed those who violated stay-at-home orders. The lockdowns may have been necessary from the perspective of the health emergency. Yet they showcased how the TCC and capitalist states may more tightly control the distribution of labor power, especially surplus labor, by controlling movement and by locking labor into cyberspace and therefore making it disaggregated and isolated. As new digital technologies expand the cognitive proletariat and the ranks of workers in the gig economy, they also allow for a stringent surveillance and control of this proletariat through cyberspace.
Capitalist states face spiraling crises of legitimacy after decades of hardship and social decay wrought by neoliberalism, aggravated now by these states’ inability to manage the health emergency and the economic collapse. The pandemic will leave in its wake more inequality, conflict, militarism and authoritarianism as social upheaval and civil strife escalate. As the pandemic aggravates the structural crisis, the ruling groups will turn to expanding the global police state to contain mass discontent from below. Well before the contagion, the agents of this emerging global police state had been developing new modalities of policing and repression made possible by applications of digitalization and fourth industrial revolution technologies.
As the world emerges from the pandemic, it will be remade, for better or worse.
There has been a rapid political polarization in global society since 2008 between an insurgent far right and an insurgent left. The crisis is animating far right and neo-fascist forces that have surged in many countries around the world and will now seek to capitalize politically on the health calamity. But it is also rousing popular struggles from below, as we have seen in a wave of strikes and protests around the world. Capitalist crises are times of intense social and class conflict. Depending on how these struggles play out, structural crises may expand into the third type of crisis, a systemic one, meaning that the crisis must be resolved by moving beyond the existing socioeconomic system — in this case, capitalism.
Whether a structural crisis becomes a systemic one depends on a host of political and subjective factors that cannot be predicted beforehand. What is clear is that mass popular struggles against the depredations of global capitalism will now become conjoined with those around the fallout from the health emergency. As the world emerges from the pandemic, it will be remade, for better or worse. The battle is now underway for the post-pandemic world.