Op-Ed: Keep politicians away from social media regulation, and let God tweet
We did it, America. After letting our social media panic rise for years, we finally helped convince Twitter to ban God.
OK, it wasn’t God, per se, but rather TheTweetOfGod, a satirical account run by a former “Daily Show” writer who posts quips such as, “What happens after you die is pretty funny actually.” Twitter, which like all social media platforms is under increasing consumer and political pressure to police bigotry and extremism, ruled on Tuesday that the ersatz Yahweh had engaged in suspension-worthy “hateful conduct” by tweeting, “If gay people are a mistake, they’re a mistake I’ve made hundreds of millions of times, which proves I’m incompetent and shouldn’t be relied upon for anything.”
The company quickly reversed itself after the ensuing brouhaha, claiming it had made an “error.” Still, this should be (though it almost certainly won’t be) a wake-up call — not to the Lords of social media, but to the rest of us heathens. We keep asking Silicon Valley to enforce speech manners on the commons, then recoil in horror when the results inevitably don’t go as expected.
The more we treat social media companies like speech-providing utilities, the more they’re going to act like utilities — which is to say they’ll never go away.
Every damned day in 2019, far too many of us wake up in the morning, fire up Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, and then demand that the managers of same censor, demonetize, and even ban people who say things we don’t like.
Last week it was the eminently dislikable but nonetheless popular conservative shock-bro Steven Crowder nominated for YouTube de-platforming. Crowder has long mocked Vox video producer Carlos Maza, taunting him as a “lispy queer” and “gay Mexican.” (Maza, for the record, is gay of Cuban extraction.)
Maza says Crowder’s fans send him torrents of homophobic abuse via social media and text message. So, like many of our modern de-platformers, albeit with considerably more skin in the game, Maza went rifling through YouTube’s terms of service for disqualifying violations, and came up with the site’s prohibitions on “content or behavior intended to maliciously harass, threaten or bully others.”
YouTube initially responded that Crowder’s trolling didn’t quite rise to the level of incitement. But then the video platform, which is owned by Google, suspended his channel’s monetization — basically, preventing him from selling ads until he removes specific content such as links to his site selling “Socialism is for F*gs” T-shirts.
With the controversy at a high boil (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ted Cruz were weighing in on Twitter, natch), YouTube then announced a sweeping policy change banning “extremist” and denialist videos. Almost immediately, legitimate journalists and historians who cover controversial subjects found their work purged from YouTube.
We are asking social media companies to do the impossible — impose and enforce editorial standards on an endless global stream of user-generated content. The very reason that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube et al became popular in the first place — they’re so easy to use even Grandpa can do it! — dooms all these post-facto cleanup exercises to failure. An algorithm will never replicate the judgment of a magazine editor, and no human hands can reproduce the efficiency of a 24/7 automated publishing system used by millions.
“Casting a wide net into the Internet with faulty automated moderation technology … also inadvertently captures useful content like human rights documentation, thus shrinking the democratic sphere,” warned a joint report published last month by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Syrian Archive and Witness. “No proponent of automated content moderation has provided a satisfactory solution to this problem.”
Among civil libertarians, the deeper worry is that social media panics are already turning into bad speech-restricting legislation and regulation. Congress last year overwhelmingly passed a likely unconstitutional Online Sex Trafficking Act that holds web publishers retroactively liable for prostitution advertisements posted by users. Each week brings some new Capitol Hill hearing where politicians browbeat technology companies for alleged viewpoint discrimination.
But let’s not give short shrift to government censorship’s kissing cousin, censoriousness. That’s where users increasingly ask technology companies — sometimes under threat of government force — to shut down the speech of people we find distasteful. We really need to knock that off.
The more we treat social media companies like speech-providing utilities, the more they’re going to act like utilities — which is to say they’ll never go away. Possibly the best single thing about social media behemoths has been that they have a tendency to disappear. No longer are we under the boot heel of Friendster, MySpace or Flickr. There’s a reason Facebook and Google are now openly inviting Congress to regulate them — that way they get to help write the rules governing any future competitors.
There are important reasons for individuals to avoid being a terms-of-service tattletale, too. Especially at a time of increased polarization and political apocalypticism, all of us need to get better at old-fashioned persuasion, and less reliant on third-party authorities to make the bad people go away. Keep politicians away from social media regulation, and let God tweet.
Matt Welch is editor-at-large at Reason magazine and a contributing writer to Opinion.
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