Social Media and Fake News

People’s political, cultural, and religious views can be partitioned by differing attitudes and preferences. One of these is whether a person looks first to the government or to themselves to solve their problems. Any society requires both, but where do you look first?

An important debate is currently raging over what to do about misinformation and fake news spread on social media. I have shared my views earlier that the rules for what can be posted and shared on a social media platform should be largely up to Facebook, Twitter, etc. “Social media and false information”  But what would we like them to do to solve this problem?

The right to state and promote any point of view should be defended at all costs. But what about lies, deliberately invented or foolishly believed and propagated? The government (ours or anyone else’s) is the last place to empower to determine what is true or not. I am also not thrilled at the idea of Facebook, etc., making such determinations. “What to do with social media?”  As one of those who look first to myself and my neighbors for help with problems, in this short note I want to put the spotlight on what can and should be done to better enable each of us individually to evaluate the accuracy of the information we read and especially information we might chose to pass on.

I spotlight (no more than that here) three areas. The first is education. Schools should provide our children with the critical thinking tools to evaluate the accuracy of the information we are reading or hearing. I don’t think that the importance of this can be over emphasized.

The second area is the importance of news reporting standards and related institutions that promote those standards and the importance of choosing information sources that we can trust. Jonathan Rauch has a very useful discussion of these points in The Constitution of Knowledge: a defense of truth“The sources of trust”

The third area is what social media itself does. It can best help our individual assessments of truth by supplementing posts with information on their source and perhaps with warnings of possible inaccuracy with links to other sources.  It is better for business for social media platforms to detect and block trolls and robo accounts and they should certainly be encouraged to do so. But they should not block former Presidents of the U.S. from saying what they want despite a well documented history of lying. They should and do have the right to do so, though in our traditional commitment to free speech, they should not do so. The government might require platforms to disclose their algorithms for how they direct traffic in order to benefit from public discussion of such internal rules. Taking down posts should be a rare last resort.

In short, we need better training in how to evaluate information however we encounter it. And the social media platforms should be as transparent about what is posted there and what is done with it as possible.

With that we more or less get what we deserve.

What to do with Social Media?

Social media is changing how we get news and debate public issues. How should its contents be regulated and by whom? The answer should reflect the fundamental importance of free and open speech for forming broadly supported public policies and social attitudes.

The quality of public discussion in the United States today has deteriorated. There are even some who wish to end debate on some issues altogether (the cancel culture). Take two recent examples:

In reaction to Georgia’s new Voting Rights Act President Biden said: “Parts of our country are backsliding into the days of Jim Crow, passing laws that harken back to the era of poll taxes — when Black people were made to guess how many beans, how many jelly beans, in a jar or count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap before they could cast their ballot.” “Biden US backsliding-Jim Crow”

Representative Maxine Waters traveled to Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, to join crowds protesting the police shooting of Duante Wright. On that occasion, “A reporter then asked, if Chauvin isn’t convicted on all charges, “What should protesters do?”

“Well, we gotta stay on the street,” Waters said. “And we’ve got to get more active. We’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.”

For her complete comments see: “In her own words-Maxine Waters”

In response to Water’s words Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted:

_________________________________  

@RepMaxineWaters you don’t live in Minnesota.

You crossed state lines and incited riots, violence against police, shootings at the MN NG, and threatened a jury as a sitting US Congresswoman.@SpeakerPelosi surely you will expel this criminal from Congress and uphold the law! pic.twitter.com/twH52VwFTP

— Marjorie Taylor Greene 🇺🇸 (@mtgreenee) April 19, 2021

_________________________________ 

“Marjorie Taylor Greene says Maxine Waters incited riots calls for her expulsion from congress”

‘Maxine Waters-Kevin McCarthy Minnesota police”

President Biden’s and Representative Greene’s comments both earn four Pinocchios. Senator Ted Cruz’s comments about Waters’ statement were just as bad. But then we are used to politicians lying to us, especially in the heat of campaigns. However, they do not contribute to the constructive dialog needed over these and other pressing public issues.  

With regard to Georgia’s new Voting Law, assessments are mixed. For example: “Rather than allowing voters to request ballots six months from Election Day, the new law says voters can start requesting ballots 78 days out; counties can begin sending ballots to voters just 29 days before Election Day, rather than the previous 49 days.” “Georgia voting law explained”

This hardly strikes me as voter suppression. I grew up in Bakersfield California and our voting precinct voted in our garage. As a kid I was fascinated by it all (though not thrilled with having to clean the garage for the occasion). There was no such thing as early voting except for absentee ballets by military service men and women. No drop boxes or any of that stuff. You came to our garage on election day or you didn’t vote. But there is surely a place for serious pros and cons of each provision of the law. As the press has been overwhelmingly (almost hysterically) negative (despite Georgia’s Governor and Secretary of State’s refusal to yield to Trump’s pressure to overturn his election defeat in Georgia) here is a more measured defense of the new law: “Exclusive 21 black leaders defend Georgia voting law as proper honest reform”

The real question is why were changes in Georgia’s voting law needed in the first place? What weaknesses were being addressed? Even with this new law, Georgia’s law is more permissive than those of Biden’s Delaware. In a negative, but more balanced assessment, Derek Thompson stated that:  “Georgia’s voting rights have long been more accommodating than those of deep-blue states including not only Delaware, but also Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York.” “Georgia voting rights fiasco”

Maxine Waters didn’t, and often doesn’t, use the best judgement in where, when and what she said, but she didn’t say anything that she should not be allowed to say whether you agree with her or not.  Referring to Reps. Waters and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich, Newt Gingrich wrote that:

“House Democrats have produced two radical demagogues whose policies would endanger the lives of innocent Americans, lead to the breakdown of society, and undermine the U.S. Constitution.”  “Repudiate Tlaib and Waters promote mob rule Newt Gingrich” This is precisely the sort of name calling that impedes the serious dialogue over concrete issues and proposals that we so badly need. Demonizing opponents–turning opponents into enemies–is a tactic of the weak (think Vladimir Putin).

Rep Waters’ charge that protesters should get more confrontational did not strike me as an incitement to violence anymore (and rather less) than former President Trump’s call for his assembled supporters on January 6 to march to the Capital and “fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The brief submitted by Trump’s lawyers for his impeachment trail stated the “his call for the crowd to ‘fight like hell,’ was not meant to be taken literally.” OK, then perhaps he should keep it to himself. This reminds me of my favorite “apology” for lying about voter fraud that kept Trump from remaining in the White House. In response to a liable suit by the voting software company Dominion Voting Systems,  Sidney Powell stated in court that “’no reasonable person would conclude’ that her accusations of Dominion being part of an election-rigging scheme with ties to Venezuela ‘were truly statements of fact.’” “Sidney Powell-Dominion-No reasonable person”  Sadly I know some very fine people who did (or do) believe her nonsense.

But what if Biden’s, Trump’s, Waters’ and Greene’s comments were suppressed–erased–rather than challenged? These were opinions, however off the mark, rather than statements of fact. What if someone (named Trump) claims that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and thus not eligible to run for President (despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary)? I will spare you the very long list of such lies. And, to finally get to my real topic, what should social media do about it?  

Unlike newspapers and magazines, which are responsible for the accuracy of their content, Facebook and Twitter and Tiktok (I am too old to be current with all of the other newer platforms) “merely” provide the vehicle by which its users (you and me) distribute our content. The government does have laws that limit speech.  “Categories of speech that are given lesser or no protection by the First Amendment (and therefore may be restricted) include obscenity, fraud, child pornography, speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, speech that violates intellectual property law, true threats….and defamation that causes harm to reputation….”  “United States free speech exceptions”. What is not legally allowed generally, should not be allowed on social media. But in my opinion, those are the only restrictions that should be allowed in the law.  The last thing we want is Nancy Pelosi or Ten Cruz deciding what is allowed and not allowed on Twitter.

In short, beyond speech that is already restricted by law, the government should leave social media free to set their own policies for what they permit on their platforms.  But what should those policies be? In my opinion, all opinions should be allowed, even those, and especially those, that the platform operators consider wrong or repugnant. Bad policy prescriptions should best be countered by counter arguments not by censorship. It is not possible to over emphasize the benefit to America of free and open debate. Bad ideas are best countered and refuted by good ideas.  You are not likely to find a better statement of these views and a better defense of free speech than in Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.

But what about clearly fake news? Unfortunately, the distinction between fact and opinion is not always 100 percent clear. Tweeter should not have removed Donald Trump’s pages, though full of lies. Facebook should not have removed QAnon’s totally ridiculous conspiracy claims to take another extreme example. Many far less controversial posts have been removed as well for very unclear reasons. Facebook and other social media are working diligently to strike the right balance but are not there yet in my opinion. When Facebook or other social media platforms have good reason to doubt facts posted on their platforms, rather than remove (censure) them it would be better for Facebook to attach its warning and perhaps a link to more reliable information.

If Facebook (or any other platform) chooses to forbid hate speech, it would be better to rely on user complaints than its AI algorithm to determine what is hate speech. In an amusing, but not so amusing, example of the pitfalls of reliance on programmatic detection of disallowed speech, Facebook removed a post of a section of the Declaration of Independence because of its “nasty” reference to American Indians.  “Facebook censored a post for hate speech-it was the Declaration of Independence”

It is often argued that given the realities of network externalities (everyone wants to be where everyone else is), Facebook and Twitter are virtual monopolies and that this justifies more intrusive government regulation.  But the competition has expanded to include at the top of the list: YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest. Even Trump plans to launch his own platform. Facebook and the other popular platforms must ultimately please their users or they will be replaced even if network externalities are hard to overcome. It has happened before and can happen again. Government intervention to regulate platform content beyond the restrictions already in the law would be contrary to our traditional freedom of speech and potentially dangerous.

There are measures that the government might take to make competition easier. When phone companies were required to give ownership of phone numbers to the subscriber, making them easily portable from one phone company to another, competition received an important boost. Something similar might be done with social media data of users (e.g., username, friends, pictures and posts).

A much more challenging area concerns social media algorithms for directing users to others with similar interests (or beliefs) in order to better target the advertising that pays for it all. If users only see or hear the views of the likeminded, unhealthy ego chambers can be created and promulgated. Agreeing on constructive approaches to dealing with this danger will require more public discussion.

Summary: Demonizing political opponents is bad for democracy. Opponents are not enemies. There needs to be enough common ground for most of us to stand on if we are to remain a viable country. Free speech has been a very important feature of America and its flourishing. It is best to protect free speech and counter misinformation and bad ideas with rebuttal and better ideas. No opinion should be censured. Social media should flag questionable information rather than remove.

A liberal dad complained about the one-sided liberal (in the American rather than classical sense) education his children had received in college because, he said, “they are completely unable to defend what they believe.”

Australia and Facebook

As reported in Bloomberg: “Australia’s parliament passed a world-first law to force digital giants such as Facebook Inc. and Google pay local publishers for news content…. The legislation was passed Thursday and will ensure “news media businesses are fairly remunerated for the content they generate,…  ‘We look forward to agreeing to new deals with publishers and enabling Australians to share news links once again,’ [Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs] wrote in a blog post dated Feb. 24.”  Got that???  Does this apply to content that Facebook generates or collects and shares or does it apply to news links Australians share? Perhaps both. Actually, I think that newspapers and other news sources pay Facebook to post their links. It’s called advertising.

But what about the links I post on Facebook and Twitter to articles in the Washington Post, WSJ, and Bloomberg (all of which I subscribe to)?  Facebook is the platform on which I post them. Is Facebook being asked to pay the Post and WSJ for my posts? What I do with what I buy from these news services should be between me and these services and should have nothing to do with Facebook. Should Word Press have to pay the sources I link in my blogs? Should AOL have to pay sources I send or link in my email? OK, OK, I am an older gentlemen and got my AOL email address over thirty years ago and I don’t want to change. !!!  Should the U.S. Postal service have to peak into my regular mail and pay for any source content that I might be sending someone? This is ridiculous and it should be opposed.   

New tools require new rules?

A hammer can hit a nail on the head, or it can hit you (or your enemy) on the head. Most, if not all, tools have multiple uses, some good and some bad.  Societies adopt rules to promote the beneficial uses of technologies and discourage harmful uses. New tools/technologies necessitate a discussion of what the rules for their proper uses should be. We are now having that discussion for the uses of social media to promote and propagate ideas and information (some true and some false).

Free speech is revered in America for good reason. Like many other aspects of our preference for self-reliance (personal freedom), it requires that we take responsibility for sorting out what is true from what is false rather than giving over that task to government (and whoever leads it at the time). This can be a challenging task.  We must sort out who we trust to help us. Those of you my age will appreciate that we no longer have Walter Cronkite, and Huntley and Brinkley to help us filter real from fake news.

Our commitment to free speech is so fundamental to the character of America that I have written about it a number of times. https://wcoats.blog/2012/09/14/american-values-and-foreign-policy/    https://wcoats.blog/2012/09/15/further-thoughts-on-free-speech/ https://wcoats.blog/2012/09/29/freedom-of-speech-final-thoughts-for-a-while-at-least/

Various social media platforms present us with another new tool and the need to sort out how best to use it. The answer(s) will take the form of social conventions and government regulations. It is important to get the balance right.

Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, Instagram, Tiktok and other platforms do not generate or provide content. They provided a very convenient and powerful means for you and me to share the content we produce. What responsibility should Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, etc. have for regulating the content we post to their own platforms, which are after all private. As you saw in my earlier blogs on this subject, publishing and broadcasting our words are limited when they endanger or slander others. But these limits do not and should not limit our advocacies for policies and political beliefs as I am doing now.

The big issue today is fake news (out right lies). If you create or repeat lies, you must be responsible for what you do (but we don’t generally punish lying unless under oath). You are allowed, for example, to state on Twitter or Facebook that you believe Obama was born in Kenya despite thorough documentation that he was born in Hawaii. Perhaps you are gullible enough to actually believe it though it is false. But should Facebook and other platforms have a responsibility to block clearly fake news? What if their own biases lead them to block more Democratic Party “fake news”, or vice versa?

As a private company Facebook can more or less do what it wants but it has a strong business/financial incentive to build a reputation of fairness and to provide a platform that attracts as many users as possible. Here are their rules from their website:

“To see the full list and learn more about our policies, please review the Facebook Community Standards.  Here are a few of the things that aren’t allowed on Facebook:

  • Nudity or other sexually suggestive content.
  • Hate speech, credible threats or direct attacks on an individual or group.
  • Content that contains self-harm or excessive violence.
  • Fake or impostor profiles.
  • Spam.”

The debate at the moment is focused on political ads. Facebook has said that it will not fact check political ads and Tweeter has said that it will not run them at all.  A Washington Post editorial stated the issue this way: “Politicians should, for the most part, be able to lie on Facebook, just as anyone else is, and the public should be able to hold leaders to account. But that’s a different question from whether politicians should be able to pay to have their lies spread, based on unprecedentedly precise behavioral data, to the voters who are most likely to believe their lies.”  “Google’s reply has been more nuanced. The company will limit the criteria campaigns can use to “microtarget” ads to narrow audiences based on party affiliation or voter record. The aim is to increase accountability by letting more people see ads….”  “Tech-firms-under-fire-on-political-ads”

No one, thank heavens, wants the government to vet ads for truthfulness. Some facts are obvious and some are less so. The potential danger to free speech is illustrated by Singapore’s “fake news” law.  Singapore claimed that a post by fringe news site States Times Review (STR) contained ‘scurrilous accusations’.  Giving in to the law, Facebook attached a note to the STR post that said it “is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information”.  “Facebook’s addition was embedded at the bottom of the original post, which was not altered. It was only visible to social media users in Singapore.” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-50613341

However, the government should provide the broad framework of a platforms responsibilities.  For example, the U.S. government requires transparency of who pays for ads in print and TV ads. The same requirement should be imposed on Internet political ads. To qualify for Facebook’s say whatever you want in a political ad policy, the candidate being supported should be required to attach his/her name as approving the ad. Limiting the use of micro targeted ads broadens the exposure and thus discipline on truth telling.  According to The Economist: “To the extent that these moves make it harder for politicians to say contradictory things to different groups of voters without anybody noticing, they are welcome. “Big-tech-changes-the-rules-for-political-adverts”

Knowing what sources of news to trust is no trivial matter. Knowing the source is helpful. Rather than fact checking the content of posts, Facebook attaches an easily viewed statement of the source.  Establishing standards for and establishing boundaries between categories of posts sound easier than they really are, but insuring transparency of who has posted something should play an important role. Flagging questionable sources, without changing the content of a post, as Facebook does, is also helpful. I hope that the discussion of the best balance (and not every platform needs to adopt the same approach) will be constructive.

Alex Jones

Alex Jones and his Infowars website have been removed and banned from YouTube, Facebook, Apple, and Spotify among the most popular social media platforms.  As of this moment, Twitter claims to be reviewing CNN claims that Jones and Infowars violate Twitter’s standards.  What should we think about this?

Jones has made many ridiculously false claims, such as the belief that Sept. 11 was an inside job, that the Sandy Hook massacre never happened and that Michelle Obama is a transgendered person with male genitalia.  “An InfoWars video posted in July 2018 falsely declared that the ‘CIA admits transgenderism is a plot to depopulate humanity.’” Twitter-Infowars-Alex Jones But accuracy and honesty haven’t been criteria for banning posts or President Trump’s tweeter account would have been closed long ago. Who is to decide whose lies can be tweeted and whose can’t?

Hate speech, which violates Twitter’s rules, is another matter, as is the promotion of violence.  Twitter’s rules state that it does “not tolerate” content “that degrades someone.”  President Trump violates this rule as well on a regular bases.

What should we do about the lies and hate that are regularly posted on the Internet?  I agree with Kimberly Ross who said that: “It is imperative that we don’t view those like Alex Jones, who peddle in fear-mongering and lies, as harmless. In fact, we should actively call out such appalling behavior….  We should never wait around for the Left to come in and clean up our side.  We should do that ourselves.  Individuals like Jones who manufacture outrage and spread falsehoods should find that the market on the Right for their wares is minuscule.”  Dont-defend-Alex-Jones-but-dont-let-the-government-get-into-censorship-either

Several important policy issues arise from this.  We should challenge what we believe to be lies and hatred ourselves.  Our First Amendment protection of free speech rightly prevents the government from deciding what is true and what is hateful and banning it.  Few of us would be happy letting Stephen Miller, a nasty minded White House Adviser, determine what could be posted on Facebook about American experience with immigrants.  Jonathan Rauch has updated his wonderful book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought,in which he argues that the best defense against fake news and hateful speech is to exercise our free speech to challenge it.  Kindly-Inquisitors-Attacks-Free-Thought. See also his short essay on this subject:  “Who-will-regulate-hate-speech”.

Facebook and Twitter are private companies and should be free to set whatever policies for access that they want.  On the other hand they come close to being public utilities like telephone companies and Internet access providers who should not be allow to block access to the Alex Joneses of the world because they lie and spread hate.  This deserves further thought.

Turning to government to protect us from every unpleasantry we might encounter weakens us and takes us in the wrong direction.  Those who defend protecting us from hate speech with “safe zones” and “trigger warnings” reflect a paternalistic attitude toward the responsibilities of our government and of ourselves as citizens of a free society.  Like the well-meaning, but ultimately harmful, helicopter moms, we risk creating a society of wimps dependent on government for far more than is healthy for a free society.  Part of our training as we grow up and encounter a sometimes nasty world should be to stand up and challenge falsehood and hate when we encounter it.  Safe zones deprive us of such training.  It’s our job to counter lies and hate, not the government’s.