Those voices are discussing social media censorship, instances in which a public post is removed on a social network for reasons other than it not getting enough likes quickly enough and deciding to delete it yourself.
After Twitter and Facebook restricted the spread of a questionable news story about Joe Biden’s son, social media users across the country began to echo a similar concern: if you can’t trust the people who gobble up each and every piece of personally-identifying information in order to churn out micro-targeted advertisements so accurate that make it seem as if your smart speakers are listening to your each and every word, who can you trust?
Last week, the New York Post published a dubious article concerning alleged emails found on Hunter Biden’s laptop, which were discovered when a computer repair shop owner fired up the MacBook, clicked the little magnifying glass, typed in “worthless, unsubstantiated information,” and after being presented with a hundred thousand messages from J. Crew each claiming to be the last chance to take advantage of a 40% off sale, the technician went a route slightly less disingenuous and mocked up some fake-looking PDFs instead.
This so-called news, a term, like Starbucks Coffee, that only bears a slight resemblance to its original intent, made its way to the Post by way of respected journalists Rudy Guliani and Steve Bannon, the modern-day Woodwards and Bernstein that helped break the story revealing that Hillary Clinton was the lizard that shot down JFK Jr.’s plane.
Having originally failed to meet the editorial standards of other news outlets, Twitter soon banned links to the article for violating its policy on distributing private information that was obtained by hacking, believing tweets should exclusively remain in the safe and trustworthy domain of fast food companies pretending they’re your casual acquaintance, screenshots of celebrity apologies written in the Notes app, and real-time bad jokes about that fly on Mike Pence.
Declining to take the story down entirely, Facebook chose to reduce its reach, ever-so-slightly mitigating the influence of the stupidest person you ever took a yoga class with among the network of baby boomers, oblivious suburbanites, and unpopular millennials.
But on Friday, Twitter bowed to pressure from conservative voices and unbanned the article, allowing the misinformation to spread its wings and fly once again, freeing the pigeon to identify additional statues onto which it can disseminate its knowledge.
The right has long complained the social networks are suppressing their voices; Donald Trump Jr., for instance, believes he gets fewer likes on Instagram because the platform intentionally limits the reach of his content, and not because the general plot of a guy who buys thousands of copies of his own book in order to sneak onto bestseller lists isn’t a “story” worth tapping on.
But as New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose points out through his twitter account, @FacebooksTop10, which chronicles the highest-performing Facebook links on a daily basis, left-leaning content is routinely outperformed by right-leaning voices such as Donald Trump for President, Franklin Graham, Dan Bongino, Ben Shapiro, Stephen Crowder, and the other types of people who would refuse to appear in a racist reboot of Hollywood Squares not because it’s racist, but because it’s filmed in Hollywood.
It’s no help that the Wall Street Journal also reported that Mark Zuckerberg signed off on a Facebook algorithm change in 2017 that reduced traffic to progressive news sites, instead prioritizing the likes of Blue Lives Matter because blue lies matter more to the company’s bottom line.
As for Twitter, limiting the reach of certain types of content is less like a Dracula silver bullet and more like Coors Light silver bullet that reeks of an impulsive, drunken decision: the MIT Technology Review reported that shares of the Hunter Biden article doubled once the article was suppressed, spreading its reach even further. There’s no need to cover your hands when you sneeze if you’re going to wipe them all over your followers.
After Twitter restricted the link to the Post article, the head of the FCC released a statement indicating that he would soon be clarifying Section 230, a piece of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that protects internet companies from material posted by their users — it doesn’t matter how bad your cousin’s band’s album is on SoundCloud; it’s legal.
Many, including Mr. Trump, want to see the law repealed in order to punish tech companies for “unlawfully” restricting the spread of that beheading video enshrined in your News Feed by the constitution.
Others, like Democratic senator Ron Wyden, believe that eliminating the law would make tech companies even more fearful of removing or labeling misinformation, allowing improv shows over Zoom to continue calling themselves entertainment.
This law was written when the internet was relatively young, and just like Zachary Ty Brian’s business manager, any attempt to course-correct will likely carry plenty of unintended consequences.
But what’s clear to me is that today’s approach isn’t working — by the time Twitter or Facebook deems a link worthy of being taken down, it’s too late for a quick power wash because the graffiti’s already settled into the brick.
Short of repealing section 230, the tech world has proposed several novel solutions to the situation: online identity verification, restricting free access for advertisers to personal data, replacing the Facebook icon on your home screen with the picture of an Aerosmith album to ensure that nobody touches it, even accidentally.
But no matter the case, whether it’s through legislation or companies changing their business models to disincentivize the spread of harmful content, the long road traveled to get to a solution to this problem will surely resemble what it’s like to use social media in the first place: a huge waste of time.