The internet is full of people complaining about the internet. More specifically, conservatives have of late been complaining about bias and “censorship” on social media and by tech companies. Liberals seem to be more pleased to see Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and other giants of tech boot dodgy sources of information such as Alex Jones, or various overt racists. To horribly generalize, they tend to see the acts as years-late good news.
Unfortunately, there are scads of anecdotes about these companies fumbling on the question of what content is ok. From Youtube messing with historical documentaries and commentaries that contain Nazi footage, to Facebook suspending, say, the accounts of peaceful, but radical libertarian friends of mine (rude). Five years after my beloved Antiwar.com was demonetized due to its hosting of photos of Abu Ghraib atrocities, it appears obvious that any kind of content picking and choosing is destined to be rife with mistakes. And yet, everyone seems determined to continue these ill-advised compromises.
Twitter in particular has mastered the art of making nobody happy. But more to the point is that conservatives are now flipping out about their own aggressive misunderstanding of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. They are convinced that tech companies are biased against them. This may have some truth to it. They are also convinced that they understand Section 230. This is not true. The most frequently heard argument is that because the laws says that merely hosting content does not open a site up to liability, if that site changes any of that content — even by engaging in moderation at all, I guess? So any message board not called 8chan? — that means they are a publisher that is potentially liable for any and all insane or criminal content that someone puts out. RIP the internet, if that argument is taken to its most logical extreme.
This misunderstanding is yet another checkmark on the long list of reasons why the right doesn’t actually like freedom of speech (neither does the president). Don’t worry, neither does the left, but they tend to admit it a lot more directly! And while five years ago, the excellent left-wing reporter Alex Pareene was writing about Google messing with Antiwar.com, today it feels like all the left wants is more tough action from tech companies. No-platforming in in — something that they of late have utter confidence will not bite them in the ass later. Rather like Democrats’ gleeful support of executive (and general government) power under their guy, liberals have no sense that they could ever regret this smorgasbord of banning later.
This is basic good intentions run amok — imagine someone is being harassed on Twitter, they yearn for an easier way to report that. They don’t think about the ease with which a report button, say, could be levied against a user who has done nothing wrong. The anti-harassment weapon switched handily to a trolling tool.
And so, to my own headline’s point, we have another social media decision that has raised hackles. In October, Twitter did a slow roll-out of a feature for Android and IOS — a politely paternal question to the tweeter if they want to read the article before they retweet it.
Because fear and melodrama is the order of the day, left and right briefly flailed and panicked over assumed bias. But as a libertarian who spends far too much time on twitter, I can confirm that it sure looks nonpartisan and automatic. And do you know what? It worked on me. The two or three times over the past month that I was too hasty in an attempted retweet, the warning shamed me. I don’t think I was about to share disinformation, but again, this is such a gentle thing — applied equally!
I do better than most in terms of remembering not to retweet stuff that may or may not be accurate. As a writer of headlines, an editor, and someone who has had pieces published under headlines I dislike, I know that they often are bad, incomplete, or clickbait.
Twitter’s warning is kind of insulting. It is what we would call a nudge from the government. But they’re not the government. Call it a mandatory media literacy feature. And as much as I am a free speech purist, I can’t help but think that’s a potentially good idea for our bewildered society.
So if Twitter keeps this feature, and they stop booting users, and even stop putting (admittedly funny) warning on the president’s tweets, that would be a wiser decision than I expect to ever come from them. And if they did that, just about nobody would be happy except me. But better a condescending pop-up than this endless ideological whack-a-mole that also satisfies no one, and results in a more stifled internet all together.