Early in the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearing on Wednesday about foreign meddling on digital platforms, Senator Richard Burr asked executives from Facebook and Twitter to define the phrase “social media.” It was a softball question that allowed the corporate pariahs of our era to recall the simpler times when they effectively sold themselves as forces for good.
“Social media enables you to share what you want to share when you want to share it without asking permission from anyone,” Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said.
“We believe that the people use Twitter as they would a public square, and they often have the same expectations as they would of any public space,” said Jack Dorsey, the company’s CEO.
Tech giants have been preaching the gospel of oversharing for a long time. They’ve baked the ideals of the First Amendment and the principles of a free and open internet into their business models. It all sounds very noble, until you remember that Dorsey and Sandberg were testifying before Congress because their lax rules have allowed misinformation and hate speech to proliferate around the globe in recent years. There’s a disconnect between the lofty goal of lifting every voice and the toxic cacophony that’s created when all those voices are screaming at once on the same platform.
Facebook believes it can use scale to silence the worst voices one by one. It’s announced plans to dedicate 20,000 workers to safety and security, and has algorithms that are getting more adept at flagging content that violates the company’s policies on hate speech, violent imagery, and deceptive political ads. In her opening remarks on Wednesday, Sandberg noted that the social network recently removed 652 pages and accounts from Iran that were part of a coordinated political-influence campaign ahead of the 2018 election. Dozens of pages tied to the military in Myanmar were taken down after the United Nations released a report accusing leaders there of genocide. And a political-ad archive launched in May gives users a better idea of who’s targeting them as they scroll through their News Feeds.
This was Sandberg’s first time in the Congressional hot seat — CEO Mark Zuckerberg and general counsel Colin Stretch have both taken their licks already — but her talking points showed that Facebook’s strategy hasn’t shifted. She leaned on the word “inauthentic” to describe the content Facebook is getting better at eliminating, like fake accounts and foreign interference campaigns. But it’s less clear what Facebook plans to do with the people who are not hiding behind fake names but rather using the platform to build a brand on outright lies. “Bad speech can often be countered by good speech,” she argued when asked how Facebook should respond to a user calling school shooting victims crisis actors. Yet on August 6 Facebook banned Alex Jones, who was infamous for such claims, in lockstep with several other major digital platforms. The company will ban certain controversial figures or walk back extreme “all speech is good speech” takes when confronted by the online outrage machine it helped invent, but ultimately wants to attract as many people to its platform as possible, regardless of the veracity of their beliefs.
Dorsey came closer to acknowledging that the problems with the social media ecosystem are more fundamental than the bad actors that have attracted headlines over the last year. “We need to question a lot of the fundamentals that we started with 12 years ago in the form of incentives,” he said. “When people use our product every single day, when they open our app up, what are we incentivizing them to do?” But when Senator Susan Collins asked him whether Twitter had done basic things to clean up its misinformation messes, like alerting users who had interacted with manipulative foreign accounts, he offered little in the way of concrete action.
That was the frustrating dynamic of the entire hearing: Sandberg was heavy on details, but unwilling to budge on Facebook’s megalomaniacal goal to connect the entire world for profit. Dorsey seemed aware that the service he built is fundamentally broken, but acknowledged that Twitter had done less than it could have to curb fake news or clearly explain its moderation policies. (His response to the Alex Jones controversy was somehow even more muddled than that of the other tech leaders.) Google parent company Alphabet didn’t bother to show up, declining a request from Congress to send CEO Larry Page. For all their talk of fighting misinformation and hate speech, tech giants continue to address these issues at their leisure. And Congress meets them on their own terms, trying to suss out ways to make megaplatforms adhere to democratic values rather than exploring ways to make them fundamentally less powerful.
All three of these companies emerged in a period when the internet was diffuse and disorderly. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the foundational law that protects them from being liable for the content their users post, was created when online communication was decentralized and innovative startups needed protection from corporate interests. Check the scoreboard: America is now home to two trillion-dollar tech companies and three more that are not far behind in valuation. The principles of internet freedom should always be protected, but the framework that benefits a select number of entrenched tech behemoths should not.
Congress should recognize that the misinformation campaigns by foreign powers are a symptom of social media’s structural problems, not a cause of them. Regulations should focus on finding ways to restore competition online. A bill preventing giant corporations from acquiring startups, introduced by Senator Amy Klobuchar last year, could be one solution. Another might be forcing Facebook to spin off its giant social satellites like Instagram and WhatsApp. That way, when another Cambridge Analytica happens, or a once-vibrant platform descends into a bot-ridden hellscape, users would have the ability to take their business elsewhere.
Society will ultimately face a choice: build new alternatives to compete with the current giants or turn the entire internet into a small number of heavily regulated, heavily moderated corporate spaces. Right now the momentum, from the president on down, is drifting toward the latter option. But before we give up on the dream of the open internet entirely, we ought to give people besides Dorsey and Sandberg a shot at getting it right.