Wednesday 13 January 2021
The parameters of truth and free speech should not be set by self-interested social media platforms. It’s time the lawmakers stepped in
Not long after I left the BBC, I gave a speech titled ‘The Valley and the Hill’. It was an argument that Silicon Valley was offering up great services to consumers, but it was also making big problems for Capitol Hill, the biggest being that technology was destroying our politics: “I’m here to say our democracies are up shit creek,” I said, “and Mark Zuckerberg has the paddle.”
Well, after the Capitol Hill riot last week, Zuckerberg paddled frantically. Facebook suspended Donald Trump and – some 69 days after the election, with around two thirds of Republican voters believing that the election had been rigged – they blocked all “StopTheSteal” content on its platforms. Others with paddles – Jack Dorsey at Twitter, Jeff Bezos at Amazon – they made similar moves, including cutting off Parler, the alt-right platform that had become home to the organisers of the march on the Capitol and the other election conspiracy theories.
To some, this was Silicon Valley censorship, billionaires setting the rules. To others, it was just laughably late; Twitter, in particular, seemed to be sacking its best-performing rockstar after a four-year stadium tour and just as he finished his final encore.
But a line, surely, had been crossed. By implication, Big Tech seemed to acknowledge that enough was enough. The insurrection had finally put an end to online tolerance of the big lie, not least inside those companies. And, more widely, it had brought to a head the battle for truth in the internet age.
I’m James Harding, the editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I want to talk about what next for the public square and the information wars.
This, of course, is not just a social media problem; the old media owns it, too. The UK has long had its own filter bubble; it was called Fleet Street. And as the newspaper business has struggled, newspapers have played the polarisation game, keeping readers by telling them what they want to hear. Meanwhile, in the US, cable news led by Fox has made a success of preaching-to-the-choir TV, giving on-air credibility to liars and conspiracy theorists.
Trump’s success itself inhibited some from calling out populism. In the years after 2016, politicians and pundits on the right were keen to dismiss the mainstream media as out of touch. They disparaged the use of the word populist as, itself, another example of well-heeled newsrooms being elitist and patronising. But populism is not another word for popular, nor is it a euphemism for bigotry and ignorance. Impartiality is not a reason to muffle indignation. A populist is a politician who believes that he embodies the will of the people in their battle with the powerful, so that the responsibilities of office and, if necessary, the rule of law cannot and should not constrain him. Populism is not conservatism or libertarianism. They are ideologies. Populism is a tactic, a self-serving power play and, sooner or later, a vandal’s charter.
That said, without question, the Capitol Hill riot, the blocking of the president from Twitter and Facebook, the suspension of Parler from Apple, Google and, most interestingly, Amazon Web Services is a recognition by Big Tech that the president may have spoken the big lie, but Silicon Valley spread it.
For most of the past decade, the big tech companies had argued that the principles governing publishers should not apply to platforms. They provided the stage, the argument went, but they could not be held accountable for what people said on it. In the last few years, this argument was already beginning to fray. Facebook reversed its position on allowing holocaust denial. Twitter flagged Trump’s false tweets. But, in barring Trump and suspending Parler, that argument is over. They showed that they did have the equivalent of the editor’s red pen or what we in newspapers know as the spike. The platforms can choose not to publish.
Understandably, there’s been a backlash. Why should Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, be able to silence the elected president of the United States? On what grounds is Donald Trump barred, but Donald Jr. still online? How is that Mr Dorsey steps in to police the truth in the US political circus, but demagogues and dictators, liars and conspiracists in the rest of the world can still tweet away? And those same questions, or at least similar ones, pursue Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and Tim Cook at Apple, too.
Of course, there’s also been a bogus whining about the assault on free speech. But there’s not a freedom to lie. There’s not a freedom to incite hatred or to organise violence. These are not freedoms; they’re more commonly crimes.
The battle for truth is not about the definition of free speech. It has never been an absolute freedom. In fact, no-one is trying to rewrite those rules of, say, libel, hate speech, child safety, copyright or national security that temper free expression. The question is how to apply them on the internet.
It’s about the application of free speech laws to the digital public square, where an exponentially growing volume of individually generated content is uploaded worldwide in real time. And not just, we should remember, on the social media platforms that we can see, but on the private social networks and the gaming sites that are out of sight, but where the StoptheSteal conspiracists and their fellow travellers will gather even more now.
This is a new and much bigger version of an old problem. It arrived with the printing press. Doubled with radio. Then again with television. And multiplied many, many times over with the internet.
Because the internet is a different, third category of media. It’s not the same as the old. But nor it something else entirely. And it can no longer operate as a lawless frontier. It requires government action: competition to break market dominance; legislation to apply existing freedom of speech laws; and regulation to set a new public standard for digital platforms. Because the principles that govern the press (the trade-offs between the right to publish and the public interest), much like the principles that govern radio and TV (the licence to broadcast in return for public service commitments), they are needed now for the internet: the right to operate a platform as long as it meets a new public standard of accuracy, safety and accountability.
The rules of the public square should be set by parliaments not plutocrats. The problem that blew up on the steps of the US Congress started in the Valley but must be resolved on the Hill. Angela Merkel is right in her response to Twitter’s barring of Trump. “The chancellor sees the complete closing down of the account of an elected president as problematic,” Steffen Seibert, her chief spokesman, said. Rights like the freedom of speech “can be interfered with, but by law and within the framework defined by the legislature – not according to a corporate decision.” Her view should appeal to both Democrats and Republicans.
Because members of Congress have paid the price for doing little more than admiring the problems of the internet for too long. Democracy is up shit creek. Congress in the US, Parliament in the UK and legislatures in democracies everywhere need to pick up the paddle.