Republicans whining about how social media moderators are violating their inalienable right to lucrative follower counts have found an ally in Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Earlier this month, SCOTUS threw out a lower court’s ruling that Donald Trump violated the First Amendment when he blocked his haters on Twitter, finding that the issue was irrelevant because Trump is no longer in office and no longer has an account. Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion that “the right to cut off speech lies most powerfully in the hands of private digital platforms.” He argued that tech firms are now “sufficiently akin” to common carriers, a class of private businesses like telephone companies that do not have the “right to exclude.”
Thomas then went one step further, arguing that social media firms are so powerful and important to the public conversation that the correct solution may be to compel them to host all types of speech.
“If the analogy between common carriers and digital platforms is correct, then an answer may arise for dissatisfied platform users who would appreciate not being blocked: laws that restrict the platform’s right to exclude... It changes nothing that these platforms are not the sole means for distributing speech or information. A person always could choose to avoid the toll bridge or train and instead swim the Charles River or hike the Oregon Trail.
“But in assessing whether a company exercises substantial market power, what matters is whether the alternatives are comparable,” Thomas added. “For many of today’s digital platforms, nothing is.”
Such a regulation would put substantial limitations on the First Amendment right of websites ranging from giants like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to potentially even news sites with comment sections like Gizmodo to ban commenters who break their rules. There are all kinds of legal problems with Thomas’s argument, suggesting this is a bit of an exercise in twisting the law to score a win on an obsessive GOP gripe. Even the right-wing National Review, usually a reliable sounding board for culture war whining, noted such a law would turn Facebook into “Pornbook” (this sounds like a major improvement, but there’s no accounting for taste).
Of course, it would also limit the ability of moderators to police hate speech, misinformation, and propaganda. A Hellfeed, of sorts, you might say, which brings us to the rest of this week’s roundup:
Facebook’s Oversight Board, the (supposedly) independent body the company set up to distance itself from the fallout of its moderation decisions, previously had the power to overrule the company’s mods when it deemed them to have incorrectly banned something. Now the board has a significantly expanded role: It will allow users to appeal when they believe content has been incorrectly left up.
In an announcement this week, the Oversight Board said Facebook users will now get a code that they can submit to it when they believe posts, statuses, videos, comments, and shares should be taken down for any reason. For example, while we have yet to see whether the Oversight Board will reinstate Donald Trump’s suspended Facebook and Instagram accounts—as CBS noted, he may find a relatively friendly audience there—this could have provided an earlier opportunity for users to contest CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s determination in mid-2020 that the company would do jack shit about the former President’s post calling for the military to murder protesters.
Twitter, which is probably getting tired by now of clarifying that its own ban on Trump is permanent with no exceptions, wearily made it clear that the National Archives can’t set up an account that would act as an archive of Trump’s posts.
Level one pillow goblin Mike Lindell, a relentless promoter of conspiracy theories claiming Democrats stole the 2020 elections from Trump, is currently banned from Twitter and being sued for $1.3 billion by one of the companies he smeared. The MyPillow CEO also claims to be launching a social media site called Frank Speech where anyone can speak their mind... next week.
As it turns out, Lindell’s free speech site is not so much a free speech site as a site where you can’t say anything that violates “biblical principles.”
“... Get this, this Judeo-Christian platform we’re going to have here, they go by biblical principles—you know, you get to the Supreme Court, you have the Ten Commandments there—so, in other words, you’re not going to have porn up there!” Lindell said on The Eric Metaxas Show this week. “... You’re not going to be able to swear. There will be four words for sure you can’t say: You can’t say the C-word, the N-word, the F-word, and you can’t use God’s name in vain.”
“What a concept, right?”, Lindell added.
The New York Review has a scathing profile of Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister of Britain who now serves as a loyal PR flack for Facebook waging a campaign to reassure the world that the company is not actually destroying democracy but... something something... well, we’re working on it. It’s worth a read, particularly for its description of how Facebook is deploying right-wing tropes to justify its own inaction on hate speech and propaganda:
It seems Clegg has perfectly repurposed the experience of his past failed political career for his new corporate one: in Mark Zuckerberg he has found his new David Cameron, but in this position there is no downside to being the junior partner because there are no voters to punish you at the ballot box. Instead of providing cover for a right-wing UK government bent on imposing austerity, he is now providing cover for a platform that has helped power the rise of the US far right.
... The most nakedly Trumpian part of [a recent piece by Clegg on Medium]—one that could just as easily have been written by Steve Bannon—describes Facebook engagement as if it were a popular uprising against an establishment elite.
Clubhouse, the buzzy Silicon Valley audio chat app that thinks it’s worth $4 billion now despite its fuzzy-at-best path to monetization, is facing more and more ripoffs. Twitter, LinkedIn, Slack, and TikTok parent company ByteDance have all reportedly begun developing their own versions; in the last week or so, Facebook officially began beta testing its own chimeric equivalent and news broke Reddit was planning to clone it too.
Given that it’s unclear whether live-streamed audio rooms have staying power or Clubhouse’s success is primarily due to people having a dearth of social options during the coronavirus pandemic, this is... a lot. Audio chat rooms also add another layer of complexity to moderation problems for these sites, which mainly rely on algorithms and user reports to flag dangerous and/or rules-violating content, and have historically struggled to keep up with video livestreams. Clubhouse is already riddled with scams, misinformation, and organized harassment campaigns, which bodes poorly.
Australian officials are considering a legislative proposal that would ban all anonymous commenting via the internet, requiring social media sites to verify users’ identities before they can register an account or continue to use an existing one. Sites would be required to hand over these details when requested by an eSafety Commissioner or police, or via court order.
As Gizmodo’s Aussie-based correspondent Matt Novak explains, the suggested mandate for 100 points of identification is quite extreme:
Different forms of ID are assigned points, and the points must equal or exceed 100 points for someone to open a bank account. For example, birth certificates and passports are worth 70 points each, while domestic driver’s licenses are worth 40 points, and credit cards are worth 25 points. A birth certificate and a credit card would only equal 95 points, requiring one more form of ID to get beyond 100.
The legislative proposals also include legislation to “enable law enforcement agencies to access a platform’s end-to-end encrypted data,” which is tantamount to demanding that companies like Apple and Facebook or encrypted chat apps like Signal build in security backdoors to their products.
Apparently, it does. The site that most of us probably only ever land on by accident while using Google Image Search is rolling out a $500,000 fund that will pay out to small groups of influencers over 2021 (starting with those from under-represented backgrounds). As Engadget notes, Pinterest isn’t reliant on influencer culture and the amount of funding available isn’t much, but it’s likely trying to see if it can replicate some of the success of other social media companies that have rolled out much larger cash incentives for viral creators like Snapchat and TikTok.
At the same time, Pinterest rolled out a new “Creator Code” which requires Pinterest users with access to Story Pins to agree to above-and-beyond guidelines about fact-checking and inclusivity.
There’s absolutely no reason anyone sane should know the notorious Krassenstein brothers, an infamously annoying pair of anti-Trump grifters that got banned from Twitter for running a network of fake accounts. But for anyone dead-eyed enough to seek an update on that whole mess, they’re now cryptobros who are promoting far-right extremist Ali Alexander, the organizer of the Jan. 6 rally at the Capitol that turned into a deadly insurrectionist riot, on crypto community Bitclout and Clubhouse.
- Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is really steamed that YouTube took down a video of his misinformation circlejerk of a panel with the three doctors behind the “Great Barrington Declaration,” a document calling for the government to just let everyone get infected with the coronavirus.
- Sebastian Gorka, the former Trump national security adviser who loves wearing medals associated with Nazi collaborators, is banned from YouTube for continuing to spread conspiracy theories about the 2020 elections.
- Twitch will now ban streamers for “serious offenses” that take place off the platform, which is probably bad news for the Islamic State’s cybersports team.
- Discord has caved to Apple’s draconian, won’t-somebody-think-of-the-children censorship policies and banned users from accessing NSFW channels on its iOS app.
- Facebook only took down a page for a QAnon-themed political action committee called “Disarm the Deep State,” which may have been run by Jim Watkins, the founder of neo-Nazi internet hellhole 8chan. It only did so after inquiries from reporters, according to BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac, and after it had ran targeted video ads in elections in Florida and Indiana.