The Internet, particularly in the case of social media sites, has become a danger to modern civilization. That’s an alarming statement and one with which only some of you will agree. The current case in the Supreme Court, Gonzalez vs. Google, LLC, about posting an ISIS video on Youtube (actually, YouTube’s policies for recommending the video to other users), is not what alarms me, although, in this case, I agree with the petitioners that harm was done. Instead, I am most alarmed by the malicious speech, which has become routine on many sites, and the disinformation, which not only appears in posts but gets passed on to thousands and sometimes millions of viewers. I am alarmed because social media is helping to create and perpetuate a communication network that rewards and promotes hostility and personal attack as a way of people interacting with one another. I am even more alarmed that social media has contributed to the dissemination and acceptance of false information, and that instead of providing an antidote or correction factor for such information, mainstream media has resorted to promoting biased, half-truths to remain popular with their polarized audiences. Having a population that is misinformed about economics, government, medicine, foreign policy and science seriously hampers our ability to govern ourselves in a rational way.
I don’t have these fears because I believe I have the truth about economics, government, medicine, foreign policy or science and I am fearful that those with different versions of the truth will prevail over me, nor do I regard myself as immune from occasionally using provocative and exaggerated methods of spreading ideas on social media. I’m talking about my own the words and print messages and those of persons with whom I agree as much as those of persons with whom I disagree. I’m talking about the tenor of our national conversations and our treatment of issue of truth.
Right now, the Gonzalez vs. Google case is seen as a test case for the freedom of social media to remain as self-moderating platforms that can operate without fear of liability for what their users say or post (with some exceptions). In terms of freedom of speech, the extent to which fear of liability can produce de facto limitation of speech is a complicated one, and historical judicial decisions and academic discussions have provided a rich array of opinions on the subject, all of which will presumably be taken into account by the Supreme Court.
I’m not sure what the court will rule, but I am raising a deeper issue. In the case of social media, have we created a monster that is exerting such a negative influence on our civilization that we need to do something to bring it under control? Freedom of speech has never been something that has been discussed without consideration for the consequences of both restricting it and of not restricting it. We are not allowed to yell fire in a crowded theater that is not on fire, because of the consequences. We are not allowed to excite a mob into violence. The government is also not allowed to prosecute media for publishing information they did not know was inaccurate, and defamatory statements must be made with a malicious intent in order to be a violation of the law. We have in place a set of laws that have been constructed by carefully navigating the constraints of the First Amendment. But Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is, in effect, a Congressional set-aside for social media companies that gives them a free pass on the application of most of these laws that have been created for other aspects of the media such as newspapers, magazines, TV, and book publishing and selling.
Social media has shown itself to be unable to self-moderate in a way that substantially reduces its harm. They have demonstrated that their primary consideration is profits and not the well-being of society and they consistently choose the former over the latter. Deliberate disinformation, malicious defamation and other forms of socially harmful content that appear on social media sites should be subject to the same legal constraints that they are when they appear on other media sites. For this reason, I think that Section 230 should be removed, not necessarily by the court, but by Congress. There are arguments that such a law is necessary in order to protect freedom of speech, but, having read most of these arguments, I am not convinced that internet-based social media postings represent a substantially different first amendment issue from other media enough to justify waiving the liability laws that apply to those other media.
Featured Image: Today Testing (For derivative), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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