All media properties self-censor, social media can too

Whether Congress acts or not, online platforms seem to be realizing that their power comes with responsibility

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, testifies remotely Nov. 17 before the Senate Judiciary Committee as Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., looks on. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, testifies remotely Nov. 17 before the Senate Judiciary Committee as Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., looks on. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 23, 2020 at 10:30am

OPINION — Change is coming to social media, maybe not tomorrow, but soon — if the two parties in Congress can agree on some changes in the laws governing, or not governing, Facebook, Google and Twitter.

And even if Republicans and Democrats cannot agree, the big three social media companies seem willing to be more transparent, and perhaps to give consumers more choices, about what they see and don’t see, and to consider censoring — yes, that is the right term — material that is beyond the pale.

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That also could be the net result of all the jawboning by lawmakers even if they fall short of passing legislation. Fearful of what Congress might do, the companies may themselves adopt content censorship practices — the obfuscating term of art is “content moderation” — that, if occasionally clumsy, are more open, more subject to appeal and perhaps more responsible.

And some of these new practices, suggested by the CEOs of the tech companies in two marathon Senate hearings in the past three weeks, are more than a little interesting.

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Let’s take Twitter, whose CEO, Jack Dorsey, looks like a modern-day Gandalf with his long goatee and gaunt appearance. He had the more unconventional approach to “content moderation.”

Dorsey said he wants Twitter to move in a direction where users will have more control of the algorithms that decide what they’ll see on their feeds. He made a number of suggestions, among which was giving individual users a selection of algorithms to choose from, or at least settings by which to adjust the algorithm — and perhaps letting third-party developers make an algorithm suited to your tastes that you could purchase or download and apply to your Twitter feed.

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Said Dorsey: “I also believe that having more choice around how algorithms are altering my experience, in creating my experience, is important, so being able to turn off ranking algorithms, being able to choose different ranking algorithms that are found — written — by third-party developers in somewhat of an algorithmic marketplace, I think, is important, and a future that would excite and energize us.”

Basically, Dorsey wants users to take more control of their feed. That is interesting for us journalists and users who are news and opinion junkies. I loved Twitter in the early years because it was so diverse in the people who were on it. I could follow liberals, conservatives, independents, iconoclasts of all stripes, getting a wide variety of opinions on a wide variety of subjects. It was like dining on a buffet of different and provocative dishes.

Or, I could home in on a particular expertise.

For example, I have an interest in Iran as a foreign policy topic. The Islamic republic is a large, industrious, well-educated country with a fascinating history, currently ruled by leaders far less interesting than its people. In Twitter’s early times, I could follow a wide variety of U.S. experts on Iran and get a picture of the wide range of approaches the U.S. could take toward Tehran.

But as time has gone on, Twitter has become less interesting. The algorithms too often work to send you content that is too similar to tweets and stories you have already clicked on. It becomes repetitive.

Now to fool the algorithms, I have to consciously click on diverse points of view on a given topic or the artificial intelligence algorithm will keep sending tweets to me it thinks I want to read based on my past behavior. I don’t want that. I want to be surprised, not harangued over and over again by the same voices.

If, for example, I click on two or three tweets about the latest outrage of Donald Trump, I don’t want 10 more harping at me about the same thing. That’s what leads to “doom scrolling” — spinning through your Twitter feed and getting more and more depressed all the time.

Social media, Republican senators make the frequent but not inaccurate point, might be addictive, particularly for adolescents. Like a bad drug, they give you a frisson of euphoria followed by a reinforcement of paranoia.

The unaccountable algorithm keeps sending Joe and Jane the same jolt of right-wing outrage over and over and pretty soon they’re parading an AR-15 in public and planning to kidnap the Michigan governor. Or, left-wing online fury leads to plotting to burn down the local police station. That is not good social media practice.

All media properties censor themselves to some extent. We are all vulnerable to lawsuits by people saying we defamed or libeled them.

We also live and die by the First Amendment, which confers on us great rights, but in fact is not absolute. Congress has made laws, as have courts and the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, that abridge the freedom of speech. Just as Congress has made laws, despite the Second Amendment, saying you cannot as a civilian buy a .50 caliber machine gun.

Those are sensible limitations.

Social media companies are not exactly like publishers, they are more like transmitters, and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act makes tech companies not liable for the content posted by their users.

But their reach is so extensive, and some of their content so dangerous, that they too are already censoring content. Pornography and content about child trafficking and some calls to violence are already taken down by mainstream social media platforms. In election season, Facebook and Twitter took to couching, or providing context to, tweets from President Trump and other politicians that were obvious lies.

The Wild West of social media may soon be tamed, by Congress, or by self-censorship. That may be no bad thing.

Patrick B. Pexton is CQ Roll Call’s technology editor.