There are no laws to shield people from misinformation. So, as the nation chugs toward the final stretch of the presidential campaign season, Americans need to take a good look at where they gathered the information that forms their political opinions.
If your news flows primarily from social media sources such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, you are not alone. A Pew Research survey shows that 78% of citizens under 50 get their news from these sites, mostly from Facebook, which as more than 2.7 billion active users.
But given the way Facebook aggregates information, it is likely consumers have been manipulated away from alternative viewpoints — viewpoints that might have changed minds, had the user been exposed. Few realize the depths to which Facebook analytics and human monitors restrict, delete and fact-check the information they receive.
Facebook is the powerhouse for news. Yet it was founded in 2004 as an internet site for Harvard University students to connect. Its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and his team are computer programmers, not trained gatherers of factual reporting.
The fact that Zuckerberg’s invention got as big and pervasive as it has says something profound about the public’s respect for the mainstream media. Many Americans have abandoned traditional news sources with articles written by experienced, vetted journalists. As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi put it: “For those of us in the business, the manner of conquest has been the most galling part. The CliffsNotes version? Facebook ate us.”
What kind of news does one get on social media? Basically, Twitter brims with short personal opinions and gossipy snark. YouTube is all about individual influencers and videos so consumers can see what happened during, say, a controversial police stop. Video storytelling, however, is limited to a moment in time and doesn’t tell the whole story about what happened before the camera was activated.
There has been a stream of complaints from both Republicans and Democrats about the way social media operates and how it has permeated the national psyche. Yet internet operators enjoy extraordinary legal protections that have helped sites reap huge benefits. In 2019, Facebook’s revenue was a staggering $70.7 billion.
At the center of upcoming Senate hearings is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which governs speech on the internet and was passed in 1996 (when Zuckerberg was just 11). Among other things, Section 230 recognizes social media platforms as “information content providers,” mere conduits of outsider’s material, and protects the companies from lawsuits arising out of objectionable posts. Important: “Content providers” are treated differently under the law than “publishers” of traditional news. Publishers enjoy no blanket immunity from lawsuits.
Critics of the status quo claim that since social media sites have now begun to edit content — in much the same way a publisher would — their Section 230 protections should be removed, thus allowing aggrieved parties to sue.
Liberals have complained that internet platforms were too slow to edit, failing to immediately remove revenge porn, slander, physical threats and harassment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said Section 230 is a “gift” to tech companies and warned it “could be removed.”
But conservatives have protested loudest about viewpoint discrimination by the big three — Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Twitter’s most notable target is President Donald Trump. He has had “content warnings” placed on many tweets, including one in June warning he would not tolerate the establishment of an “Autonomous Zone” in Washington, D.C. “If they try they will be met with serious force!” Twitter said the president’s tweet violated its policy against “abusive behavior.”
YouTube has inexplicably restricted access to more than 200 of conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager’s educational videos, saying they “aren’t appropriate for the younger audiences.” Prager says they simply educate “people of all ages about America’s founding values.”
Facebook recently removed a post from Fox News personality Tucker Carlson. He linked to his interview with a Chinese virologist who said she could prove COVID-19 came from a lab in China and not from a local marketplace. A Facebook fact checker, likely one with no specific scientific background, labeled it “false information” and erased it.
Conservative TV and radio host Mark Levin also says his Facebook posts are censored.
In June, the activist group Project Veritas released an undercover video highlighting about a dozen Facebook “content monitors” openly gloating about how they deliberately censored posts supporting Republican ideals. An internal memo was revealed, which directed monitors not to remove a provocative statement from CNN’s liberal presenter Don Lemon saying that white men are “the biggest terror threat in this country.” That kind of statement would typically be removed, but African American Lemon got an unexplained “narrow exception.”
There are no laws to protect citizens from media bias. With the presidential election looming and online political maneuvering in high gear, now is the time to fact-check ourselves. Do we believe what we believe because we read it on Facebook or Twitter? Best to make sure the opinions we hold were formed with facts, not political manipulation.