Donald Trump Was Right About One Thing

*spins chair around backwards* Let me rap at you for a minute here, kids

Reply All has a new episode about the various Trump and Q social media bans. If you read Tabs there isn’t a ton of new info, except that the Letterboxd ban that started as a joke became a real ban. But PJ and Alex Goldman and (to a lesser extent) Alex Blumberg are thoughtful and entertaining company to spend some time with. I’m going to pick on them a little bit here but I want to make it clear that they’re great and have simply provided a compact expression of a thing I want to talk about.

About Twitter summarily axing Trump and over 70,000 QAnon accounts, PJ says: "All the stuff they said they just couldn't do, like all these tech companies, for four years, [*snap*] in just two days." I am sure PJ knows that Twitter could have done this any time. Twitter has been blocking neo-Nazi content for German and French users for years, because that content is illegal there. Simply changing your country to Germany or France in Twitter settings has been enough to filter out Nazi content since at least 2017. They didn’t build the capability overnight, they have just declined to use it. In the New York Times today, Stuart A. Thompson and Charlie Warzel demonstrate that Facebook not only failed to prevent, but explicitly rewards increased extremism by its users.

"There's really never been a straighter line between violent rhetoric online and violent action in the real world," is how Alex Goldman explains why Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg finally took action against Trump. But that’s so far from being true it’s kind of offensive? In 2018 Facebook admitted it was the primary platform that “fuel[ed] modern ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.” As recently as last year Facebook refused to release information related to the Rohingya genocide to prosecutors at the International Court of Justice. January 6th was the straightest line we’ve seen between violent rhetoric online and violent action in the United States. If they weren’t dead, tens of thousands of murdered Rohingya would argue we could have seen this coming. Algorithmic social media feeds have been built to reward strong emotion, because triggering emotion juices engagement, and as long as the bodies aren’t American, engagement has been a much more important metric than deaths.

PJ’s takeaway quote is: "The thing that all these companies were saying was impossible, they did overnight, now we're gonna find out what the world is like after that." But has anything actually changed? Instagram never had any trouble banning female nipples. Twitter provides a Nazi-free experience, if you’re German. "These companies are loath to ban people and hate being seen as censors," says Alex, but that’s not because they’re not censors, or because they were helpless to ban people. It’s because if they make it obvious that they can control the violent and harmful content on their platforms, we’re suddenly going to wonder why they don’t, and the reason they don’t is that extremism is very profitable. “The idea of Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg being the people who decide who stays up and who goes down doesn't sit well with me,” says Alex, and I agree, but that has been the case for many years. It didn’t just happen last week. If you’re still not convinced, ask a sex worker.

PJ and Alex agree that suddenly seeing the control that two unaccountable individuals have over public speech is discomforting, and I am right there with them. "What I want to happen out of this is for people to build more websites that have their own rules, that can have the viewpoints they want or don't want on them," says PJ, expressing a free marketplace of ideas solution. But we already know what rules and viewpoints some of those websites would have, and what kind of real-world actions would flow from them. PJ is describing the world we live in right now. Parler demonstrated that anyone is free to build a website, and also that we can add Jeff Bezos’s lawyers to Jack and Zuck in the list of unaccountable people deciding what can be said online, if you try.

What surprised me is that no one on Reply All suggests the most obvious solution that modern democracies turn to when an industry is causing social harm: regulation. This is not a new idea, by any means. And if you think it would be trivial to do well, again, ask a sex worker.

I claimed in the title that Donald Trump was right about one thing, so let me admit here that I lied. He’s never been right about anything. However, Donald Trump spent the end of 2020 whining about Section 230, a part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that shields internet services from liability for user-posted content. In effect, it is an explicit deregulation of social media (as well as other online platforms). Trump imagined that repealing Section 230 would somehow free his beloved violent white supremacist rhetoric from the oppressive yoke of a censorious Twitter, which is precisely backward. It would have the actual effect of making Twitter, Facebook, etc. responsible for the content they publish.

And while it would be, in a way, hilarious to just repeal Section 230, doing so would according to The Verge’s deputy editor Liz Lopatto, “crash the entire economy.” “For instance,” she continued, “Zoom can be sued for Jeffrey Toobin's dick.” Again: hilarious, but probably not a good solution to this specific problem. Leaving Section 230 as the only effective regulation of social media, though, is also clearly not working. But could we attempt to use the regulatory tools of a democratic society to set some fair ground rules and short circuit the worst of our current algorithmic-engagement-seeking hell? I think so.

Fuck Donald Trump, though.

Today’s Song: “FDT” by YG & Nipsey Hussle

~if you gaze for long into a tab, the tab gazes also into you~

F·O·R·M·A·T B·R·E·A·K what’s up. Love to PJ and Alex who are both mensches and you should follow them and listen to their show. Full disclosure: I provided some background to Alex on the Parler scrape, which is why I was listening at 9am on Thursday. Thanks also to Liz Lopatto. That’s all, see you Monday!