Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 27 October 2021

 The Internet’s problems run deeper than just Facebook

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is a perfect target for people who are angry about the perversion of democracy in our open society. He’s rich, arrogant and seemingly unrepentant. But I fear he is becoming a scapegoat for deeper prob- lems with the Internet itself.

The Facebook frenzy is accelerating this week, as 17 news organizations join the document dive that started with whis- tleblower Frances Haugen’s revelations to the Wall Street Journal. Some of what’s being revealed is genuinely outrageous, such as Facebook’s accommodation of dictators overseas, and its dissemination of information abroad by human traffick- ers, drug cartels and other illegal actors.

But before Congress rushes to create a new Department of Algorithm Review, I suggest we recall Walt Kelly’s comment in his comic strip, “Pogo,” to wit: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” In so many instances of disinformation about politics, vaccines or anything else, the problem is often a bottom-up viral spread of dangerous information by social media users. The information might be toxic, but it usually isn’t illegal — and in the United States we have a First Amend- ment that protects speech, even the nasti- er versions.

Beyond Facebook, I have a deeper worry. The Internet was created with an idealistic dream: The global propagation of open information would expand hu- man freedom and democracy. As the world became flat and citizens were em- powered, authoritarian rulers would be- come weaker. Alas, it hasn’t worked out that way. The paradox of the Internet is that it has enabled greater control by authoritarians and fueled greater disor- der in open democracies.

Americans who are anguished about former president Donald Trump keep looking for a villain to blame (other than Trump himself and his movement). After the 2016 presidential campaign, investi- gators hunted a conspiracy driven by Russia. Now, there’s a similar fixation on Facebook as the root of our political dysfunction. If only Trumpism were as easy to explain as a Moscow or Facebook plot! But the veins of rage, left and right, were there to exploit, politically and fi- nancially, well before Trump.

Thomas Rid, author of “Active Mea- sures,” an authoritative 2020 study of disinformation, notes the meme that Zuckerberg is a malevolent machine. “Many cannot resist the temptation to blame some of the worst ills of our time on this company and its aloof CEO,” he noted in an email message this week.

“The more accurate insight is so hard and so taboo that many of us dare not say it out loud,” Rid continued. “Is it Facebook or the Internet that is bringing out the worst in us? Is the Internet merely reveal- ing and amplifying what the old media gatekeepers kept in check? Is there a point where too much ‘democratizing’ of information will lead to a closing of our societies?”

Alex Stamos, a former chief of security for Facebook and now director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, notes that the very openness of the Internet is part of today’s problem. Once, media gate- keepers limited what was disseminated. “Now, you get a vast buffet that has some healthy foods, and also some heroin, and a lot of people take heroin,” he explained in an interview.

Social media was supposed to be an open ecosystem. But as people find their niches and preferences, they create closed loops for themselves. “Facebook is designed to deliver to users information that they like, from people that they like, in rapid fashion,” argues Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and leading authority on disinformation.

Stamos helped lead a detailed study of misinformation in the 2020 election, con- ducted by the Election Integrity Partner- ship. The inquiry examined how false information was spread. Often it started with small incidents, reported from the bottom up, that were then disseminated by a relatively small number of “repeat spreaders,” who would retweet or other- wise amplify the lie.

The answer, says Stamos, is to increase “friction” on the Internet, so that it’s harder for these lies to become viral. That means limiting retweets and shares — rather than trying to police the informa- tion itself. “I don’t want Facebook to try to fix American politics,” Stamos argues, and he’s right. A hypothetical govern- ment social media agency shouldn’t try to fix our politics, either. That’s a road to tyranny.

Congress should rewrite some of the rules that bound the Internet. For exam- ple, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act should be amended so that social media companies can be sued if they design algorithms that propagate false information. But total repeal of Section 230 would be a mistake, because it would encourage endless defamation litigation and discourage platforms from carrying true stories that are critical of the rich and powerful.

Here’s the awkward truth: Regulation of social media ultimately is on us — the users. We have to teach ourselves, our children and our “friends” to monitor content and weed out what’s false and hateful. In the end, we’ll get the Internet we deserve.

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