The big Internet platforms have invoked “free speech” to protect their own interests for far too long.
By Dipayan GhoshDipayan Ghosh is author of “Terms of Disservice” and leads the Digital Platforms and Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is a former adviser at Facebook and in the Obama White House.Jan. 7, 2021 at 2:45 p.m. EST
As the world watched Wednesday, hordes of President Trump’s followers stormed the U.S. Capitol, setting a fire at the feet of American democracy as we know it. In response Thursday, Facebook announced that it was banning Trump from the platform, at least through Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. Like the more temporary suspension Twitter imposed on the president the day before, it was a tacit admission of the tremendous power that Internet platforms exert over our lives today: They define and direct our thinking more than anyone or anything else — and, as such, they are just as at fault as anyone for the hateful, violent events instigated by the president.
But Facebook hasn’t always been so willing to acknowledge its power. The era-defining moment came in October 2019 when, at Georgetown University, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, explained that his company would favor a free-speech oriented policy that carried with it the stipulation that politicians like Trump largely would not be censored on the company’s platforms in any way — even if they were to intentionally spread harmful political lies. It was a position Zuckerberg took against tremendous pressure to the contrary. The world was watching him, expecting and perhaps hoping that he would commit to aggressively combating the problems of coordinated disinformation and the spread of online hate.
And yet this posture was only one example of many in the industry that favor the free-speech approach. In particular, Twitter’s historical stance on this issue, which many agree facilitated the Arab Spring and Green Revolution early in the company’s history, set the tone for the industry in the years to come. But this same firmly held position led directly to the incitement of violence on the steps of the Capitol. It did not have to be this way.
Zuckerberg’s speech was presented as a principled corporate stand for the most American of individual civil liberties — the freedom of expression. Ultimately, however, the real rationale surely had more to do with corporate concerns than deeply held principles. Indeed, Facebook’s commitment to free speech would have resonated for Twitter and YouTube, too: All three platforms have a commercial imperative to host as much original content as possible to drive engagement. The stance taken by Zuckerberg serves that imperative, branding his company’s own profit motive as a progressive commitment.AD
The social media industry’s argument for absolute free speech contributes to the profit motive for companies like Facebook in four specific ways at once.
First, it allows contentious but highly engaging borderline content — including the president’s misinforming posts — to remain online, thus inviting the positive-feedback loop of ever-higher engagement among the company’s users, both through the content in question itself as well as related posts building from the original material. This, in turn, generates more digital ad space and data-rich activity that further enables the powerful ad-targeting regimes operated by Facebook, Google and Twitter.
Second, Zuckerberg’s speech — like other, similar shrugs from the industry — ensured that his company would not immediately raise the ire of the sitting president, thereby helping it avoid regulatory scrutiny from his administration itself. Such concerns were live for the entire industry at the time, given ongoing scrutiny over alleged anti-competitive behavior, breach of privacy and anti-conservative bias by Facebook and Google.AD
Third, the social media industry has consistently tried to avoid triggering a slippery slope of regulatory inquiry over content policy, whereby governments around the world would begin to discuss and define what Facebook, Twitter and YouTube should or should not allow on their respective platforms. Containing this debate as much as possible has always been in the social media industry’s interest, given its desire to operate global platforms despite the seemingly divergent approaches to Internet governance and content moderation undertaken by various foreign jurisdictions.
Fourth — and perhaps most importantly — Zuckerberg’s free-speech policy assured that the company did not have to immediately upset Trump’s massive following on Facebook. Crucially, his following is highly active on Facebook, representing user engagement that Zuckerberg would not have wished to willingly pass up since it directly contributes to the company’s commercial success.
One could therefore argue that the stance Zuckerberg espoused during his speech was in his — and the Internet industry’s — financial interest. At the time, perhaps it was. But political circumstances have changed; Trump has lost the election, and with Democrats soon to be in power of the presidency, the House and the Senate. The regulatory future no longer looks quite as rosy for the leading Internet platforms, which have consistently managed to irk the likes of Joe Biden and the Democrats with questionable content decisions.AD
Facebook’s decision to indefinitely suspend Trump’s account — and the earlier 12-hour lockout that Twitter imposed — perhaps represent a step in the right direction for the industry. But such decisions must come much faster, else the industry risks being subject to a deserved legislative axe-swing. It is not enough to allow videos like Trump’s to be viewed hundreds of thousands of times on Instagram before they are brought down. These are the sort of posts through which he suggested that the Capitol attacks “happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” falsehoods that find an audience even if they’re only available briefly. Both companies should explore permanent takedowns of his accounts, with immediate effect.
More broadly, we need the Internet to work more effectively for us, its users. The core issue driving the problems of hate and misinformation online is not a matter of lax content moderation but rather the business model of social media itself — a business model consistently focused on uninhibited data collection to the end of behavioral profiling, and the use of algorithms to manipulate the user’s media experience. These are the features of social media that Russian disinformation operators, domestic extremists and even the president himself have exploited to foist hatred, violence and conspiracy on American voters in recent years.
In the near term, the leading Internet firms must consider ways of adjusting their content-curation, ad-targeting and behavioral-profiling machine learning algorithms — all of which contribute to the spread of offending content — toward a socially acceptable norm, one that affirmatively replaces the industry’s near-term profit interest with the public interest. Ultimately, we must have better protections in place, protections that counteract the opacity of social media algorithms with radical transparency and the uninhibited collection and use of personal data with consumer privacy rights. Meanwhile, we must rethink the legal mechanisms — namely, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — the industry has employed to shield itself from the content moderation debate.
Through American history, we have given preference to the openness of markets, unbridled by regulation. But this has come with a single important exception: When markets impede our progress as a democracy, they must be restrained. The Internet must be subject to this principle.