Editorial: It’s Time to Call the Digital ‘Disrupters’ to Account

  • A message on the site Gab is displayed on an iPhone in New York on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. The social media site popular with far-right extremists and apparently used by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect, advertises as a haven for free-speech fans. Its founder, Andrew Torba, says the site is being censored and smeared. On Monday Gab was effectively, if momentarily, left internet-homeless, long ago cut off from smartphone app stores but now banned from payment processors such as PayPal and internet infrastructure providers. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

Saturday, November 03, 2018

The heralds of the digital revolution promised that it would bring the world closer together in peace and harmony by promoting free expression, making people-to-people connections and fostering the spread of democratic institutions. They were false prophets.

Certainly the technology has sometimes been successfully employed to organize legitimate political protest against repressive regimes and has helped members of marginalized groups shunned by society to find comfort and support. But it is ever more clear that the signal product of the internet is a toxic brew of venom and violence, threats and intimidation, misinformation and disinformation, privacy breaches and screen addiction. As such, it is poisoning democratic institutions, fomenting hate, destroying traditional norms and facilitating political repression by authoritarian regimes.

Most recently, it was revealed that the gunman accused of killing 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, Robert Bowers, was a devotee of Gab, a 2-year-old social network that bills itself as a “free speech” alternative to more mainstream platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. Alternate is right: Gab has become a refuge for white nationalists, neo-Nazis and extremists of many persuasions. Bowers posted one last raging anti-Semitic comment on it before the shooting, ending with, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

All the slaughtering, of course, was done by Bowers, a hero in his own mind for countering the dire threat he imagined was posed by elderly Jews at prayer. This horrific act of violence drew rave reviews a couple of days later on Instagram, Facebook’s photo-sharing site, where, The New York Times reports, nearly 11,700 posts appeared with the hashtag “jewsdid911,” a conspiracy theory that Jews orchestrated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Just days earlier, Cesar Sayoc Jr. was charged with sending explosive devices to prominent Democrats. His rage was fueled by posts on Twitter and Facebook that embraced misinformation and conspiracy theories peddled by his twisted soulmates. A CNN analysis found that in recent months, Sayoc tweeted more than 240 threats directed at public officials, news organizations and media personalities.

Fueling murderous fantasy is not the only thing social media does well, of course. From Myanmar to the Philippines to Turkey, autocratic regimes have used Facebook to conduct surveillance of opponents and spread disinformation.

And, of course, Facebook and other social media platforms are also easy prey for malign foreign actors seeking to influence American elections, as they did in 2016, by spreading fake news, stoking division and undermining trust in a free press. It is by no means clear that the deficiencies that permitted that to occur have, or can be, rectified. These sites also handle users’ personal data in a cavalier fashion, as with the Cambridge Analytica breach.

Regrets, they have a few.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spends a lot of time apologizing these days and ineffectually promising to do better, although the company never seems to. Others are more sincere. Roger McNamee, an earlier investor in Facebook, says the platform is “tailor-made for abuse by bad actors” and is a crusader for reining it in, according to a recent article by Jacob Weisberg in The New York Review of Books. Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, acknowledges that the platform was designed to promote addiction, saying the “like” button was created to answer the question, “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

This debacle results not only from hubris among the tech wizards but perhaps also from a not-so-charming naivete. They failed to recognize that when a political and social medium is heated to the boiling point, the scum usually rises to the top. The alternative theory is even less appealing: that they knew, but ignored the dangers in pursuit of becoming fabulously wealthy.

Congress is beginning to do some handwringing about this, but it’s not clear that antitrust action to break up these companies is even possible. The current standard for antitrust action requires plaintiffs to show that a monopoly results in higher prices for consumers, an impossibility when dealing with products that are available for free.

In our view, a better way forward would be to revisit the safe harbor provisions of the 1996 telecommunications act, which absolved internet platforms of responsibility for what is posted on them. There is no longer, if there ever was, a reason to distinguish between internet platforms and the mainstream press, which is legally responsible for the content it publishes. Subjecting Facebook, Twitter and other social media behemoths to civil liability for defamation, invasion of privacy, portrayals in false light and the like, would undoubtedly disrupt the business model of enterprises that pride themselves on being disrupters. But the existence of vastly powerful institutions that are accountable to no one is inimical to democracy and a threat to its continued existence.