Tag Archives: Viewings

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.

Market concentration woes

Just followed the Medium book launch event for the print edition of Cory Doctorow’s latest, How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (free online version here). The pamphlet, from August 2020, was originally intended as a rebuttal of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism [v. supra]. The main claim is that the political consequences of surveillance capitalism were not, as Zuboff maintains, unintended, but rather are central and systemic to the functioning of the whole. Hence, proposed solutions cannot be limited to the technological or economic sphere, but must be political as well. Specifically, Doctorow identifies in trust-busting the main policy tool for reining in Big Tech.

With hindsight of the 2020 election cycle and its aftermath, two points Doctorow made in the presentation stand out most vividly. The first is the link between market power and the devaluing of expert opinion that is a necessary forerunner of disinformation. The argument is that “monopolies turn truth-seeking operations [such as parliamentary committee hearings, expert testimony in court, and so forth] into auctions” (where the deepest pockets buy the most favorable advice), thereby completely discrediting their information content for the general public. The second point is that most all of the grievances currently voiced about Section 230 (the liability shield for online publishers of third-party materials) are at some level grievances about monopoly power.

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.

Victory lap for the EIP

Today, I followed the webcast featuring the initial wrap-up of the Electoral Integrity Partnership (I have discussed their work before). All the principal institutions composing the partnership (Stanford, University of Washington, Graphika, and the Atlantic Council) were represented on the panel. It was, in many respects, a victory lap, given the consensus view that foreign disinformation played a marginal role in the election, compared to 2016, also due to proactive engagement on the part of the large internet companies facilitated by projects such as the EIP.

In describing the 2020 disinformation ecosystem, Alex Stamos (Stanford Internet Observatory) characterized it as mostly home-grown, non-covert, and reliant on major influencers, which in turn forced platforms to transform their content moderation activities into a sort of editorial policy (I have remarked on this trend before). Also, for all the focus on social media, TV was seen to play a very important role, especially for the purpose of building background narratives in the long run, day to day.

Camille François (Graphika) remarked on the importance of alternative platforms, and indeed the trend has been for an expansion of political discourse to all manner of fora previously insulated from it (on this, more soon).

Of the disinformation memes that made it into the mainstream conversation (Stamos mentioned the example of Sharpie-gate), certain characteristics stand out: they tended to appeal to rival technical authority, so as to project an expert-vs-expert dissonance; they were made sticky by official endorsement, which turned debunking into a partisan enterprise. However, their very predictability rendered the task of limiting their spread easier for the platforms. Kate Starbird (UW) summed it up: if the story in 2016 was coordinated inauthentic foreign action, in 2020 it was authentic, loosely-coordinated domestic action, and the major institutional players (at least on the tech infrastructure side) were ready to handle it.

It makes sense for the EIP to celebrate how the disinformation environment was stymied in 2020 (as Graham Brookie of the Atlantic Council put it, it was a win for defence in the ongoing arms race on foreign interference), but it is not hard to see how such an assessment masks a bigger crisis, which would have been evident had there been a different victor. Overall trust in the informational ecosystem has been dealt a further, massive blow by the election, and hyper-polarized post-truth politics are nowhere near over. Indeed, attempts currently underway to fashion a Dolchstoßlegende are liable to have very significant systemic effects going forward. The very narrow focus on disinformation the EIP pursued may have paid off for now, but it is the larger picture of entrenched public distrust that guarantees that these problems will persist into the future.

Media manipulation

Earlier, I attended an online workshop organized by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Technology and Social Change Project on media manipulation in the context of the 2020 US presidential campaign. Very productive conversation on the tailoring of disinformation memes to the various minority communities. I also learned about the Taiwanese “humor over rumor” strategy…