Tag Archives: Polarization

Free speech and monetization

Yesterday, I attended an Electronic Frontier Foundation webinar in the ‘At Home with EFF’ series on Twitch: the title was ‘Online Censorship Beyond Trump and Parler’. Two panels hosted several veterans and heavyweights in the content moderation/trust & safety field, followed by a wrap-up session presenting EFF positions on the topics under discussion.

Several interesting points emerged with regard to the interplay of market concentration, free speech concerns, and the incentives inherent in the dominant social media business model. The panelists reflected on the long run, identifying recurrent patterns, such as the economic imperative driving infrastructure companies from being mere conduits of information to becoming active amplifiers, hence inevitably getting embroiled in moderation. While neutrality and non-interference may be the preferred ideological stance for tech companies, at least publicly, editorial decisions are made a necessity by the prevailing monetization model, the market for attention and engagement.

Perhaps the most interesting insight, however, emerged from the discussion of the intertwining of free speech online with the way in which such speech is (or is not) allowed to make itself financially sustainable. Specifically, the case was made for the importance of the myriad choke points up and down the stack where those who wish to silence speech can exert pressure: if cloud computing cannot be denied to a platform in the name of anti-discrimination, should credit card verification or merch, for instance, also be protected categories?

All in all, nothing shockingly novel; it is worth being reminded, however, that a wealth of experience in the field has already accrued over the years, so that single companies (and legislators, academics, the press, etc.) need not reinvent the wheel each time trust & safety or content moderation are on the agenda.

Turning the page on disinformation?

With the inauguration of a new Administration, speculation is rife on the chances of moving on from the more toxic aspects of the political media ecosystem of the past half decade. An op-ed by Rob Faris and Joan Donovan of the Shorenstein Center (Harvard Kennedy School) spells out these aspirations concretely: with Biden in the White House, conservative media such as Fox News have the opportunity to distance themselves decisively from the more fringe disinformation beliefs of the conservative base, and return political discussion to a debate of ideas rather than the reinforcement of antagonistic social realities. In their own words,

The only way out of this hole is to rediscover a collective understanding of reality and to reinstall the mechanisms of accountability in media where they are missing, to ensure that accuracy and objectivity are rewarded and disinformation is not given the space to metastasize.

I think there is good reason not to be particularly sanguine about these goals. Faris and Donovan’s proposed solutions read more as a restatement of the intractability of the problem. For one thing, their discussion is very top-down, focusing on what the upper echelons of the Republican Party, the conservative-leaning media, and their financial backers can do. The trouble with US political disinformation, I would argue, is that at this point in the cycle it is largely demand-driven: there is a strong appetite for it in the (GOP) electorate at large, to the point that one could speak of a general social antagonism in search of arguments. Hence, focusing on the infrastructure of production of disinformation is merely going to elicit creative responses, such as the flight to alternative social media platforms, which will be viable given the size, means, capabilities, and diversity of the public involved.

The alternative, however, is equally fraught. Focusing on the transformation of mass beliefs in order to discourage the demand for disinformation amounts, in essence, to a domestic ‘hearts and minds’ mission. The historical record for such attempts is hardly promising. The trouble, of course, is that political adversaries cannot at the same time be treated as respectable dissenters in the common task of running the commonwealth and also as fundamentally wrong in their factual beliefs: respecting and correcting struggle to coexist in the same interpersonal relationship.

One of the problems with such an approach is that it is incomplete to say that the US media ecosystem is fragmented and siloed:

Since its inception, conservative media in America has operated under different rules […] The outcome: a cleavage in the U.S. public sphere and a schism in the marketplace of ideas. The news media of the center and left, with all its flaws and faults, operates in a milieu in which fact checkers have influence and the standards and practices of objectivity and accuracy still hold sway.

In other words, conservatives have largely seceded from the traditional, 20th-century unified media sphere of print and broadcast outlets, toward a smaller, insular, homogeneous but culturally dominated one of their own. The rump ‘mainstream media’ has maintained its old ‘fourth estate’ ethos, but not its bipartisan audience. Hence, its loss of cross-party authoritativeness.

The accountability void created by this partisan segregation of US public opinion offers concrete inducements to ambitious populist politicians, which will prove hard to resist. The belief that the system contains self-correcting mechanisms appears ill-founded. Yet, it is unclear that the current administration has the stomach for the protracted effort necessary to change mass beliefs, or that it would be supported consistently by external power centers, especially in the business community, in doing so.

Freedom of speech and the US political crisis

Thom Dunn on Medium really hits it on the head in describing the current crisis surrounding the ejection of the President from major social media platforms. Many have been laboring under the illusion that social media dialogue is akin to public exchange in a town square; in fact, the correct operative analogy is to a private club, and this misunderstanding was decisively cleared up for those thus deluded when the bouncers at their own discretion kicked them out.

Indeed, rather than an assault on unfettered free speech, which was never really on offer in the first place, the move of the social media titans signals a realignment of business interests, which have decided to comprehensively ditch the MAGA movement. This development is wholly compatible with models of delegitimization crises, such as the classic one by Michel Dobry.

Babies and bathwater

Just attended an EFF-run ‘Fireside Chat’ with US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) on Section 230. As one of the original drafters of the legislation, the Senator was eager to point out the core values it was meant to shield from legal challenge, permitting the full deployment of constitutionally-protected speech online without imposing an undue burden of liability on those hosting such speech.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other digital rights organizations find themselves in a complicated political position, for, having spoken out against the risks and abuses originating from Big Tech long before there was widespread public consciousness of any problem, they now have to push against a bipartisan current that has crystallized in opposition to Section 230. Even some generalist news outlets have seized on the matter, giving scant play to the values and legitimate interests the law was originally intended to safeguard.

It seems fairly clear that mainstream political discourse has been extremely superficial in considering key aspects of the problem: Section 230 has become a symbol rather than a mere tool of governance. It may also be the case that the wide bipartisan consensus on its ills is in fact illusory, simply being a placemarker for incompatible views on how to move beyond the status quo, with the most likely outcome being paralysis of any reform effort. However, the risk that the imperative to do something cause the passage of hasty measures with lasting damage is real.

In a way, the present situation is the poisoned fruit of a narrative that linked the unfettered expansion of the Big Tech giants over the past decade to the libertarian and countercultural ideals of the early internet: when the former came to be perceived as intolerable, the latter were seen at best as acceptable collateral damage. Most of the popular animus against Section 230 that politicians are attempting to channel stems from resentment at the power of social media platforms and digital gatekeepers. Therefore (and although there may well be a case for the need to curb mindless amplification of certain types of speech online), perhaps antitrust action (in Congress or in the courts) is more suitable for obtaining the results the public seeks. Comparative policymaking will also be extremely relevant, as the European Union pursues its own aggressive agenda on content moderation, permissible speech, and monopoly power.

How much fake news believers believe

A stimulating research paper on the sociological characteristics of those most likely to believe fake news in Spain, based on a survey with n = 8000. Some fairly straightforward correlations, between partisanship for populist parties, inclination to conspiratorial thinking, and belief in fake news; also, those whose news diet relies heavily on social media proved more susceptible. Among the most interesting aspects of the experiment are the variation in the subject-area of fake news (medical, agricultural, geopolitical, educational/religious, political) and especially the study of the difficulties in correcting beliefs through fact-checking (including the risk for the correction to backfire, further entrenching belief in the fake news item).