QAnon is crazy, but so is our increasingly arbitrary system of speech controls
I remember the chortling over the banning of Alex Jones and the worry by a few sincere anti-war folks that anti-establishment left sites would get the boot too. This proved true, but needless to say the VOX readers of the world saw no reason to be bothered.
If Biden is elected, there will soon be a call for military action in Syria. And there will be an accompanying effort to screen out anti-war people as subversives working for Russia, be they right or left. And people like Matt Taibbi will be appalled, wondering if the left realizes what it has done with its promotion of state-encouraged tech-driven censorship. The left and right wings of the military industrial complex, though, will quietly open the champagne and celebrate how concessions won to sideline the far left and far right allow the state to control the most powerful communication tool in the world in the United States. And the same people who denounce China and/or Russia will laud the muzzling of dissent in America.
"...a recent Washington Post warning that we are being targeted by a foreign campaign of “perception hacking,” or “manipulating people into thinking they are being manipulated,” represent just a few examples of Approved™ nonsense."
I'm related through marriage to a very smart, analytical person who nevertheless believes every bit of nonsense that is produced by these major journalistic institutions. When I fact-checked him on the convention week fiction that Melania cut down Jackie Kennedy's cherry trees, a story he regurgitated uncritically, I was told I was being petty. He has told me that reality is the exact opposite of what I think. I know I'm in good company.
How can we have a conversation when most people would rather believe lies that support their chosen narrative, and instead of objectively settling the score, the Fourth Estate is often the source of untruth, and anyone who dares to question it gets accused of gaslighting?
I'm confident that I've lost more friends to the Russiagate conspiracy theory than anyone has lost to Qanon batshittery.
Long time reader, first time poster. I don't claim to be an expert on many things, especially public policy, but I've followed the relationship between free speech and technology for many years.
I'm wondering if this piece was provoked by some of the recent proposals to repeal (or at least heavily modify) section 230. Even if not, I'd like to say something on the topic, because it's closely related and people may be thinking about it. For those not familiar, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says (more or less) that you can't sue a website for content posted by the user. Instead, you have to sue the user who posted it.
Right now, if post a comment here that says something like "Governor Bill Bribetaker takes bribes", Bill Bribetaker can't sue Matt for defamation. Matt might politely comply with a request to take my post down, but Bill Bribetaker can't sue Matt, Bill Bribetaker has to sue ME. If Bill Bribetaker tries to sue Matt, Matt can point to section 230 and ask Bill Bribetaker politely but firmly to leave. That's what section 230 does. It does that whether Matt chooses to moderate his comments section or not, even if that moderation is completely arbitrary and capricious.
Why does this matter for what we might colloquially call Big Tech? That's Facebook, Google, Twitter, Reddit, etc. Well, it means they have the legal power to be arbitrary and capricious in moderating their comments. Legally speaking, they could take down all pro-Trump posts while leaving anti-Trump posts up, or vice versa. There is entirely reasonable concern over this when a small handful of sites have so much power over national political discourse.
Both Trump and Biden have publicly stated their desire to repeal section 230. We may be screwed either way on this one. It's easy for politicians to score points by promising to Do Something™ about the unchecked power of Big Tech. It's understandable to want to go along with that. Fight the temptation. Don't allow politicians to smear their grubby little hands all over 230. What will happen is that the internet will turn into cable TV, where you can only access information that's been approved and published the media-priests. (For what it's worth, I don't count Matt in that category, and that's a compliment.)
Now as Matt has correctly identified, that kind of censorship is already unofficially in progress with Big Tech run sites. But at least other sites still EXIST. If for some reason you want to discuss the possibility that humble patriot and water filter salesman Alex Jones is right about the Illuminati lizard people, there are places you can go to do that. That may not hold. If the so-called solution to the current information monopoly turns out to be a 230 repeal, Big Tech will be all that's left. Smaller websites with user submitted content will vanish overnight, because they won't be able to afford the legal liability. And when I say user submitted content, I mean ANYTHING. Photos, comment sections, discussion boards, all of it. Gone. Big Tech will be damaged in the short term, but will survive through deep pockets and legal black magic, and all their competition will be de facto eliminated by law. Forever.
What do we do instead? I'm not sure. I don't think that (for example) conventional anti-trust laws will help here. Social networking sites may be a form of natural monopoly. Why does everyone use Facebook? Because everyone uses Facebook. If you want to communicate, you have to go where people are already communicating. Kill Facebook, and something else will consolidate in its place.
I don't have an answer, but it seems to me that the way to approach the problem is to recognize that for better or worse, major social networking sites are the new public square, or at least a major segment of it. The President (whether you like him or not) uses Twitter to communicate with citizens. Court have declared he can't block his critics on Twitter. Twitter is recognized by law (incompletely, but still) as being an official political channel.
So how do we want to treat the public square? Well... I think it means allowing crazies with sandwich boards shouting that the end is near. There's some legal precedent for this. Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins declared that a mall had to allow political speech on private property. Maybe we should start thinking of Twitter like that?
The other thing I would propose is to remove the biggest obstacle to competition. Believe it or not, the thing we need to do is not allow VISA and Mastercard to refuse to do business with an individual or coporate entity unless they have committed a crime. If ithat sounds out of left field, let me explain. There have been repeated attempts to set up alternative social networking sites focused on free speech. Some have had some modest success, others not to much. But the single biggest obstacle is that if someone complains to your payment processor and gets you removed from it, you're done. If you get blacklisted by VISA or Mastercard (and they share info), you cease to exist. Period. End of. And that's what happens to sites focused on controversial speech. This leads to further consolidation into Big Tech sites. Start your own payment processor, you say? You CAN'T "start your own" payment processor. It's not anything resembling a free market. The banking regulation costs MILLIONS to comply with. It CANNOT be done. The barriers to entry are unfathomable.
On the off chance anybody is still with me... here's my point. I share in Matt's frustration, but I disagree with the assessment that this is the worst of all possible worlds. As bad as things are now, people have no earthly idea how much worse they can get if we don't handle this with EXTREME care. The most popular solution to this being floated right now is to repeal section 230, and it's as wrong as anything could possibly be. If 230 gets repealed, 80% of the internet will vanish overnight, and the sites everyone was worried about will have permanent lock in protected by the full force of the law.
"Public private partnership" is just a cute euphemism for fascism. The sooner we all wake up to that, the better.
Also, don't dump your "loved ones" over politics. Not unless you're afraid of politics causing them to literally hit you or call police on you. Otherwise stay in touch, your ideology is not worth it. Please.
Thank you Matt -- a complete mass media silence on Julian Assange or on silencing the truth about CIA-managed OPCW illustrates the complete censorship already in place.
Independent public TV, free of advertising income, could be one approach (although BBC attempt is failure)
PS: Re-reading your 2010 "Griftopia" -- what an amazing effort and accomplishment. It is as seminal and profound as, e.g., Max Blumenthal's "The management of Savagery".
Our freedoms are rapidly disappearing, including any talk about the CIA-DNC Russia-gate hoax and War party foreign policy that has now resulted in two new Cold wars (with Russia and with China)
In my opinion, the solution is pretty easy to imagine. Simply admit that social media companies are media companies and make them accountable as such. If they want to ban speech and the speaker can show harm, they can get taken to court.
If they want to leave speech alone, those harmed can also sue.
The root cause of this was effectively exempting these entities from the normal process for settling speech disputes.
The combination of that exemption and increasingly heavy handed intervention by political actors is extremely concerning.
The central fiction that is if a company pays people directly for their contribution, they are a media company with editorial responsibility and accountability, but any other arrangement makes them a "neutral platform." It is an utterly absurd argument, which is why the tech industry bends over backwards never to have to make it in public.
Someone like Matt writes (or used to, anyway) content for publishers who pay him for said content, which they place next to advertisements; they take money from advertisers and give it to Matt. Someone literally calling themselves a creator makes a video and posts it to YouTube, which places it next to advertisements; Google takes money from advertisers and gives it to the creator. Yet, somehow a publisher has editorial responsibility, can be sued for libel, etc., while YouTube is just a "neutral platform for user-generated content", which absolves it of any and all accountability or responsibility.
What is truly insane, though, is that we keep asking the owners of these platforms their opinions about how to treat them and swallow their bullshit narrative that it is a very complex problem that only they can solve and the most important consideration is their ability to continue to make obscene amounts of money, so we should just throw some more AI at the problem. Oh, and they are so very sorry about accidentally imploding a few democracies --- move fast and break things, right!
The companies behind these platforms are draining academia of talent in an arms race to create the most profitable AI by monitizing human misery. They use people who are poor of money, but rich of time to train algorithms that they then unleash on people who are poor of time, but rich of money. We are already at the point that these companies cannot even tell you what content the AI's are serving, let alone why they choose any particular set of content --- they can only show you how much money the AI's are making by serving it. And they use that money to choke off competition and further consoludate every manner of arranging pixels on a screen to drive user engagment.
Until we finally see social media companies as media companies that make money by exploiting loopholes in laws that were written before the Internet, we are doomed to wage tribal warfare with each other over whose crazies should be censored.
We’ve lost the timber of lawmaker who would pursue anti-trust measures, and the power just keeps congealing. When people fear speaking up or disagreeing, we’re already in an oppressive environment.
The robotic sameness coming out of news and editorial rooms is suffocating speech. Over three years ago I was baptized into the pathology of intersectionality during a failed shakedown – diktats that we ignored -- of our organization. At the same time, I noticed the appearance of the same article in six or seven different publications over the span of a week’s time. The pieces blamed/shamed white women for how their horribly white husbands voted, and charged them to change their husbands’ votes. It wasn’t a coincidence. It seemed the type of thing in cheesy 50s anti-commie shorts on TCM, not something we ever see here. I didn’t vote for Trump –also something we’d never see here --– (when refusing to conform one is accused of being “far right” or a Trumper), but I knew propaganda when I saw it.
As a computer scientist living in Silicon Valley my whole life I can tell you with not an ounce of doubt that these big tech companies are Out Of Control. They must be brought to heel. They are not platforms, they are content delivery systems and must be treated as such. They need to be broken up or taxed to the point on non-existence.
The main problem is that their AI algorithms have taken over and are now promoting anything divisive in terms of the news you get. There is no promotion of what is good for society, just the AI algorithms promoting division and hate.
Finally, they are gobbling up all of the tech startups and this has massively hurt productivity in silicon valley.
Fortunately if the government doesn't start controlling these beasts, we know that trees don't grow forever. Eventually they will kill themselves, but there could be a lot of pain on the way to that death.
Until yesterday I thought Google blacklisting was a myth or overblown, but then I saw a post from bookwormroon.com, a very small conservative website, complaining that she had been blacklisted by Google. She was wanting to write about Pope Francis' latest silly pronunciation about Covid and Capitalism. Wanting to review her earlier posts on the subject she googled her own site and found no results. I've tried it too. Google "bookwormroom Francis marxist" and then do the same on any other search engine. You'll find lots of results anywhere but Google, which returns "It looks like there aren't any great matches for your search."
I deleted Google on every device I have. The blacklisting is real, even when it comes to tiny sites that don't follow the narrative.
You're bringing up very real, very important free speech issues, but you've picked a miserable occasion to do it.
The core of the QAnon movement is the desire to see the enemies of Donald Trump arrested, taken to Gitmo, tried by the military, and then executed. This is the central, founding belief of the movement. Yes, it's dressed up in a lot of ridiculous garbage about Luciferian pedovores, JFK Jr faking his death, and marines rescuing mole children from under Central Park, but sitting at its core is a call to violence. It losing a platform to call for violence right before a potentially contested is a net positive, despite the very serious problems with how speech is being regulated on social media platforms.
Not to belittle Matt's concerns...I didn't support the Infowars banning & I don't support the banning of QAnon...but I have to wonder about who actually uses Fakebook these days? I have 4 kids, ages 16-22, and none of them have ever used Fakebook. They actually laugh when I ask them about it saying, "that's for moms & dads not us."
While my wife & I have never Fakebook-ed, we eventually had to join for our business. Thankfully my wife handles that bit of horror although she does have a "never post" rule that she abides by quite rigorously. My kids have actually thanked us on a number of occasions for not being the narcissist parents who feel compelled to place their children's entire lives on the internet to gain some vague emotional jolt from a "like."
Honestly, the little that I've seen of Fakebook it looks more like a meme dumping ground than anything else. Or, more appropriately, a virtual RV where old people affix their meme bumperstickers because their opinions are best expressed in mass produced one-liners that are only vaguely amusing if you have no sense of humor.
I may be wrong, but it appears that all of this censorship is grounded in the belief that ideas are infectious, like viruses. Now, if you take that as true (I don't), you can extend the analogy to ask what is one's best defense against a virus. Obviously a strong immune system would be the answer. In my opinion, the mental equivalent of a strong immune system would be strong critical thinking skills.
Now, if politicians were really serious about "infectious falsehoods," they'd be pushing for critical thinking skills to be taught from an early age.
Of course they're not doing that. And it's easy to see why. So much of America sits on a veritable ocean of its own mass produced bullshit. Most of its cornerstone institutions, politics, religion, big business, couldn't survive without a constant stream of utter crap spewing from every one of their orifices.
This drive for censorship doesn't appear, at least to me, as a battle between what's true and what's false, as much as a battle for control of the bullshit stream.
Saying that the world is controlled by elite pedophiles doesn't appear much different than Obama saying that he knows that, "Kamala & Joe care about each & every American."
And, actually, given the trials & tribulations of Epstein and his merry band of perverts, there's probably a lot more circumstantial evidence to support the elite pedophile train of thought than there's proof that any politician cares about anyone other than themselves.
Another reason I support your work.
You care about the truth, and principles, and what the abandonment of both by soi disant liberals leaves us circa 2020.
Splitting the country into 50 smaller independent states is the only peaceful solution that I can conceive of.
All other scenarios lead to mass violence and the destruction of what made America great to begin with. California and Alabama have little in common with Pennsylvania or Idaho. All 50 states have robust government systems fully capable of handling the functions currently usurped by the federal government. (I’m a tenth amendment guy😉)
Retain portions of the judiciary to settle purely Interstate problems, and a civilian military leadership that protects us from any domestic invasion. Civilian military leaders would be randomly selected from groups of people who were able to gather 100 letters of recommendation from friends, family, coworkers, etc. attesting to their character. Four year terms, with 25 new members each year. They would be able to use force against another nation only if a super majority agreed.
"With this new, non-transparent, private star-chamber type system, what content we do and do not see is now dependent upon upper-class intellectual fashions, and the whims of politicians, media employees, and executives at tech firms."
Reminds me of this, written by Orwell in 1945:
"Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news – things which on their own merits would get the big headlines – being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ʻit wouldn't doʼ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ʻnot doneʼ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ʻnot doneʼ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals."
One additional element of this I'd be interested to hear your take on, is the fact that QAnon would hardly exist were it not for these platforms.
As much as the internet has complicated issues around speech, it has equally elevated groups (and the dark side of our collective psyche) that previously, would never have received the amplification.
So, I agree, we need a new approach. And it will require a supple and nuanced approach -- how Facebook deals with governments will need to be different than how they deal with militia groups deciding to get together and fuck shit up in downtown Portland.
Unfortunately, discretion tempered by regulation may be our only way forward.
Either way, I just wonder if, considering insanity such as QAnon owes its birth to these platforms, maybe it's okay that they see their death there too. Or at least a partial death.
I'm sure not sorry to see them take the hit.