Trump should just kill social media altogether
Is the beginning of Jack Dorsey's end in President Trump's executive order on social-media bias?
In an adjective: unlikely. Should Trump get his druthers, social media companies will be liable for the content published on their platforms. In other words, Cousin Merle's inane Facebook ramblings will now be Mark Zuckerberg's problem, along with the darkly meandering thoughts of billions of other souls.
Twitter set this gamesmanship in train by attempting to fact-check a claim by the president that mail-in ballots are ripe with fraud. The check itself was factitious: a West Virginia postman was charged with election fraud involving mail-in ballots the same day as Trump's flagged tweet. Just the same, the corrective disclaimer Twitter used erroneously conflated mandated postal voting with absentee ballots.
It also wasn't a comfort to Twitter's image that Yoel Roth, the tweety company's "head of integrity," is a leftist partisan who compared the Trump administration to the Third Reich. Yoel was the progenitor of the platform's fact-checking operation. The confluence made for a spark to light Trump's combustible ire.
Social media concerns have thus far been immune to legal recourse for content published on their domains thanks to a twenty-six-word catena of legalese tucked into §230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. This single sentence is credited with giving rise not just to social media, but to the entirety of the internet: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."
Not no more, says the president. The pith of Trump's order is to treat social media channels like news publishers, thus making them legally answerable for what appears on their public-facing feed. It would also strip the veneer of impartiality these digital giants use to distinguish themselves from traditional paper-and-ink publishers. Then, presumably, anti-conservative bias in the form of subtle suppression of right-wing opinion could be tackled.
There is some dispute over whether or not such a publisher-platform dichotomy exists de jure. And abrogating the neutral status of social media hosts isn't an exclusive rightist idea: Joe Biden propounded the same policy back in January. There is the conservative's reflexive ideological refusal to accept the government inserting itself into the affairs of private companies — which is an odd pushback, given that social media operate in a legally defined lacuna already.
Genial right-of-center lawyer David French argues that "Trump can't lawfully repeal Section 230 by [E.O.]" The order, like most unilateral declarations of Trump's presidency, will likely get challenged in court. We won't know the true extent of its effect until it winds its way through the judicial system. The process could take years.
But the eventual result isn't the point. This is a warning: unless Facebook, Twitter, et al. shape up and quit disproportionately squelching conservatives, the statutory screws will be twisted harder.
The threat isn't sitting well with some conservatives, who would rather social media companies be left to their own devices. That position is consistent with free-market tenets, to be sure. But it's also naïvely parochial. Social media aren't a harmless enterprise of happy-go-lucky users sharing feline photos and putting up giveaway notices of baby clothes. It's a maudit system of attention exploitation that immiserates far more than it fulfils.
Our collective palm-screen addiction is heightening the atomizing effects of the cyber-paced 21st century. Our attention spans are lower. An uptick in teenage depression correlates with the advent and increased usage of smartphones. Any random perusing of a Facebook comment section reveals a depressing querulousness full of bad-faith readings.
Online shaming culture is empowered by social media's rewarding of hair-trigger reaction. Earlier this week, a woman lost her livelihood for a moment of weakness when she called the police on a man haranguing her over leashing her dog in Central Park. The video rushed through social media channels, bringing what would have been a sad, private episode to national attention. The result was common to the point of perfunctory: threats, racist accusations, doxxing, outrageous headlines.
The man on whom cops were summoned told a reporter the offending female didn't need "her life torn apart." It didn't matter. There's an ineluctability to cyber-rage. Social media act as a bellows to it.
Trump's executive fiat addresses none of this. Treating social media behemoths as the liberal nodes of opinion they are is a welcome development. But far better if the president scotched the entirety of the social media business model. Our warped minds, addicted eyes, and innervated tempers would be better off.