Twitter And The Other Big Tech Giants Did It To Themselves

Let’s start this discussion of President Trump’s executive order having to do with Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies, and the circumstances which brought yesterday’s events about, with a very short, concise and spot on video by Eric George courtesy of Prager University…

Everything George says is exactly correct, and Prager U. is a very knowledgeable source on the subject seeing as though YouTube, which is owned by the parent company of Google, pulled its ad network off several of Prager U’s videos on its platform because the political perspective being offered in those videos was not favored by YouTube’s management.

“De-monetization” is a very common tactic Google has engaged in for quite some time. We here at The Hayride are the victim of it – in 2010 Google canceled our AdSense account for reasons they refused to explain, and so for the last decade we’ve soldiered on without the largest network of internet banner ads available on the market.

Other practices by Big Tech to infringe on the commercial viability of people operating in the internet space are similarly well-known. Shadowbanning, in which algorithms are manipulated so as to retard the exposure of certain disfavored content, keeps points of view out of step with the corporate management of Twitter and Facebook from achieving the reach they otherwise might. Accounts have been suspended for the posting of “hate speech,” as defined in ways most people would be thoroughly opposed to. More recently, especially with respect to the COVID-19 epidemic, we’ve seen “fact-checking,” in which Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms will intrude on users’ posts with a “correction” of those posts. The “fact-checks” are often themselves quite dubious.

We saw an excellent example of that earlier this week when Trump tweeted an expression of concern about mail-in balloting in elections, calling it an invitation to fraud. Twitter tagged Trump’s tweet with a “fact-check” that had to be edited because the fact-check itself contained false information.

That outraged Trump, who then put the word out that he was issuing an executive order about Section 230 and the social media companies. And the social media world flew into a panic. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, whose company is nearly as bad as Twitter when it comes to shadowbanning, censorship and fact-checking, launched into Twitter for its attacks against Trump by stating that social networks shouldn’t be fact-checking what politicians post.; the criticism fell flat as hypocritical, but it was instructive nonetheless.

Mostly for the nuance in what Zuckerberg said. While he spouted platitudes about the importance of political speech and how social networks shouldn’t try to be the arbiters of truth, despite the fact his platform is doing that very thing and not just with respect to the “worst of the worst stuff,” what he specifically said was “Political speech is one of the most sensitive parts in a democracy, and people should be able to see what politicians say.”

In other words, deference to politicians and not necessarily the public.

Which isn’t all that vigorous a defense of the First Amendment. It’s more of an admonition to Twitter that they’re poking the bear and in doing so creating trouble for the whole economic sector.

That’s true, of course, though Zuckerberg is the proverbial pot calling the kettle black even if, arguably, Facebook is less obnoxious than Twitter on the censorship question.

Trump’s executive order is something right out of George’s tutorial on Section 203…

It is the policy of the United States to foster clear ground rules promoting free and open debate on the internet.  Prominent among the ground rules governing that debate is the immunity from liability created by section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act (section 230(c)).  47 U.S.C. 230(c).  It is the policy of the United States that the scope of that immunity should be clarified: the immunity should not extend beyond its text and purpose to provide protection for those who purport to provide users a forum for free and open speech, but in reality use their power over a vital means of communication to engage in deceptive or pretextual actions stifling free and open debate by censoring certain viewpoints.

Section 230(c) was designed to address early court decisions holding that, if an online platform restricted access to some content posted by others, it would thereby become a “publisher” of all the content posted on its site for purposes of torts such as defamation.  As the title of section 230(c) makes clear, the provision provides limited liability “protection” to a provider of an interactive computer service (such as an online platform) that engages in “‘Good Samaritan’ blocking” of harmful content.  In particular, the Congress sought to provide protections for online platforms that attempted to protect minors from harmful content and intended to ensure that such providers would not be discouraged from taking down harmful material.  The provision was also intended to further the express vision of the Congress that the internet is a “forum for a true diversity of political discourse.”  47 U.S.C. 230(a)(3).  The limited protections provided by the statute should be construed with these purposes in mind.

In particular, subparagraph (c)(2) expressly addresses protections from “civil liability” and specifies that an interactive computer service provider may not be made liable “on account of” its decision in “good faith” to restrict access to content that it considers to be “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable.”  It is the policy of the United States to ensure that, to the maximum extent permissible under the law, this provision is not distorted to provide liability protection for online platforms that — far from acting in “good faith” to remove objectionable content — instead engage in deceptive or pretextual actions (often contrary to their stated terms of service) to stifle viewpoints with which they disagree.  Section 230 was not intended to allow a handful of companies to grow into titans controlling vital avenues for our national discourse under the guise of promoting open forums for debate, and then to provide those behemoths blanket immunity when they use their power to censor content and silence viewpoints that they dislike.  When an interactive computer service provider removes or restricts access to content and its actions do not meet the criteria of subparagraph (c)(2)(A), it is engaged in editorial conduct.  It is the policy of the United States that such a provider should properly lose the limited liability shield of subparagraph (c)(2)(A) and be exposed to liability like any traditional editor and publisher that is not an online provider.

He’s directing the federal government to, essentially, pull all advertising from social media platforms which act as publishers rather than public fora, and he’s essentially directing the FCC to begin classifying as publishers those who act in such a manner, opening them up to legal liability.

There’s a very simple response to this, which is for Google, Twitter and Facebook to recommit themselves to acting as platforms and not publishers. They grew their business in the first place under the public understanding that they didn’t take editorial positions and they were committed to an open exchange of ideas and communication; it would do them no harm to take Trump’s cue and satisfy that understanding.

But that’s not what Twitter did. Amid the rioting and mayhem in Minneapolis after a bad cop killed an arrestee while bystanders filmed the encounter and shared the footage on social media, Trump tweeted that he would put a stop to the lawlessness if that city’s mayor and its governor refused to step in and restore law and order. In his tweet, Trump said “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” – a reference to an axiom of long-standing, recently out of favor, that using deadly force to protect private property in times of lawlessness is a core tenet of civilization.

And then Twitter tagged that post as “glorifying violence.”

Twitter on Friday escalated its war on President Trump by placing a “public interest notice” on one of his tweets.

The social media giant said a tweet by Trump that read “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” violated its policies pertaining to “the glorification of violence.”

“We’ve taken action in the interest of preventing others from being inspired to commit violent acts,” the company said in a statement posted on its platform.

Twitter did not remove the post, it said, because “it is important that the public still be able to see the Tweet given its relevance to ongoing matters of public importance.”

There were certain restrictions placed on the tweet so that it could not receive likes, replies or retweets. A message preceding the tweet explains that it broke the policy.

To call that tone-deaf is to be overly charitable. Stupid doesn’t even describe it.

The response from Washington wasn’t great for Twitter. Sen. Ted Cruz dropped a bomb on the company from Capitol Hill…

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), in a letter Friday to the Justice and Treasury departments, is calling for a criminal investigation of Twitter over allegations the company is violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.

The big picture: Twitter is already under fire from the Trump administration over its decision to put a fact-checking label on two of the president’s tweets. Cruz’s letter adds another dimension to the tech company’s woes in Washington.

Details: Twitter allows Iranian leaders to maintain accounts on its service, and Cruz is asking Attorney General Bill Barr and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to probe whether that violates U.S. sanctions prohibiting American companies from providing goods or services to the country’s top officials.

  • “I believe that the primary goal of (the International Emergency Economic Powers Act) and sanctions law should be to change the behavior of designated individuals and regimes, not American companies,” Cruz wrote.”But when a company willfully and openly violates the law after receiving formal notice that it is unlawfully supporting designated individuals, the federal government should take action.”

Background: Cruz led an earlier letter from Republican senators to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in February, calling on the company to ban Iranian leaders, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The senators suggested providing the accounts may violate U.S. sanctions.

  • Twitter responded in April, arguing that its service is exempt from the sanctions, and that the public conversation on the platform is critically important during the coronavirus pandemic.

  • “Fundamental values of openness, free expression, public accountability, and mutual understanding matter now more than ever,” Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s legal, public policy & trust and safety lead, wrote. “Regardless of the political agenda of a particular nation state, to deny our service to their leaders at a time like this would be antithetical to the purpose of our company, which is to serve the global public conversation.”

It should be little surprise that Twitter’s shares are sharply down today. As of this writing it’s off three percent today, and for the year it’s down nearly 4.4 percent. A social media company should be sky-high right now given that people have been subject to social distancing and economic lockdowns around the country, pushing relationships onto social media platforms as a substitute for in-person contact.

You might think Twitter is owned by a bunch of Silicon Valley leftists like Jack Dorsey, and you might expect their shareholders to reflect the same attitude as their management.

And you might be wrong. Three-fourths of that company is owned by institutional investors, and the equity and hedge funds who control vast chunks of its stock are anything but left-wing in their political orientation assuming they care much about politics at all. What those big institutional investors care about is money, not politics, and it would seem to be only a matter of time before they start exercising some control over that company from its board.

Either that, or the stock continues to dump and it starts to become a real possibility that Twitter is subject to a hostile takeover. If its current business model costs it the legal protections of a public forum, it will have to become a thoroughly different company or else it will be far less profitable than others in that sector, and Twitter won’t be long for this world.

Not to mention the market is overdue for a new social media platform to enter the space and challenge for market share. There have been a number of contenders; so far, none have taken off, in large measure due to the anti-competitive practices of the incumbents aimed at stopping apps like Gab and Parler from coming to the fore – but not completely so, as those platforms have not evolved into true alternatives worthy of mass participation. If Twitter were to kill itself off by trying to fight City Hall, as it were, there will be a replacement.

And nobody should grieve for its loss. The damage would be wholly self-inflicted. Regardless whether you like Trump or hate him, it was never sustainable for a social media platform to attempt to censor an elected president or those who agree with him.



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