It seemed to start so innocently. A way to create a online profile, connect with old friends, see what they were up to and how they had changed or not changed since high school. Frankly it was one of the things the internet was made for. The ability to connect people, regardless of location, just internet access required. One of the first social media platforms was MySpace, whom I visited after they were purchased by News Corp (one of my accounts at Microsoft). By that time they were already on a downward trajectory soon to be replaced by a upstart originally based in Harvard, which has gone on to become a technology giant, Facebook. Most people at one point or other have had an account, and judging by the daily activity on Facebook it is a core part of people’s jobs (do not ask my how I know this). When people go on vacations, though envious of the locations, I am left wondering are you truly enjoying your vacation or just posting on Facebook to sooth your ego? One thing is clear is Social Media has become a large part of the human DNA. We are always connected. With that fame has come consequences and new responsibilities, some that have gone into areas new to companies that for the most part have targeted the consumer space, but whose reach now threaten our democracy (or our Republic for constitutional scholars).
There are a lot of social media companies now, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, TikTok, etc.. With new ones being created and coming online all the time. Some targeting different age groups. More and more using video content. A lot of the content meant to make us laugh, to cheer us up. When loved ones get ill or pass, we often hear about it first on social media platform. A child’s birth, first steps, first birthday, graduation, wedding etc..we can practically see an entire life unfold online This is a positive side to social media, the one we would like to believe in. There are positive social benefits to society, despite negativity, it helps during a crisis. A missing child, local police activity and areas to avoid (or help the community can provide). We are now connected in real time, all the time. We can react to events quickly in ways not possible before.
Somewhere things started to change. Some within our borders, some outside our borders. The election of 2016 will be remembered for a lot of things, and it was certainly not the beginning of the negative political discourse that the country had been undertaking. That has been going on for decades, but social media gave it a new voice. It has always been a challenge with the internet that people anonymously feel they can say whatever they want, not matter how vile, disgusting, threatening and get away with it with no consequences. More importantly it has turned people against one another, you continually hear about families divided. The driving force behind this was something simple: truth. The problem being is the age old question of “what is truth”? You would think it would be facts. We now have alternate facts (thanks Kellyanne). We gravitate towards those we are in agreement with and agitate those we have disagreements with.
Outside our borders our Social media platforms became a target of manipulation, a way to amplify negative aspects of American Democracy. The Russians for example have the Internet Research Agency (IRA) based in St Petersburg, Russia. The claim is it is a privately held company funded by a Russian oligarch. The reality is whatever its charter, it is their specifically to cause disruption in western democracies. It highlights a new challenge to national defense, For a foreign agitators to threaten the US it no longer requires billions of dollars spent on developing a nuclear weapon (though they still try, like North Korea and Iran) . All you need is a few really good hackers, some laptops and high speed internet connections and you are good to go. You now get into questions with Social Media companies about data and privacy. It gets into the area of what do you want government to have access to, which for some creates immediate paranoia. Edward Snowden certainly did a lot in amplifying this new state of mind. For countries attacking the US it seems since 9/11 the goal has been to upset the American economy and make Americans suffer like some third world countries do. Using Social Media has seemed an effective way to do this, though so far it has yielded limited results. America already has a huge population suffering, but that is a topic for another day.
One thing that was inevitable as social media juggernauts became responsible for monitoring their users (aka President Trump cannot just make stuff up and call it truth), was there would be a response. One such response was to Twitter, with the alt-right social media provider, Parler. I created an account to check out the service for “free speech”. It has provided a home for such outlets as Alex Jones -Infowars (their site lists everyone who banned them – which was everybody), ProudBoys, Qanon, KuKluxKlan, etc..Between signing up for a Parler account and finding all these abhorrent racist sites took all of 3 minutes. The thing about the web is it is hard for anyone to be silenced, no matter how hard some may try. One thing many have been concerned about is isolation. This will be the challenge with Parler (it easily could be an extreme left site, Twitter would not be extreme in my view), but voices raised and left unopposed leads to violent outcomes. We get so bombarded with social content, much of which makes us emotional, we seek out friends and websites that make us feel good and are in alignment with our beliefs. We simply shut out those we do not agree with, even if they have legitimate grievances. We cease to listen.
There is a lot of discussion around Section 230 of the landmark 1996 Communications Decency Act. The President would like it removed, because sometimes things he says are deemed false information and flagged as being false (by Twitter). Twitter cannot be held liable thanks to Section 230. If we take a more extreme example if someone provides a link to adult content or an extremist act of violence these should be removed by the content provider as they will be offensive to many and in many instances will be viewed by minors. On this I will argue that Section 230 serves a very important purpose, maybe even more so now in a time when finding truth can be very difficult On social media platforms in May of 2020 they were forced to remove a documentary video by anti-vaccine advocate Judy Mikovits, who said a flu vaccine from 2010 is driving pandemic, masks will activate spread COVID-19 and Dr Anthony Fauci should be tried for treason etc… There were no sources for this, just an interview. The claims by Ms. Mikovits, though ridiculous, had a very large following and leads to a kind of social panic. It highlights a challenge with social media – conspiracy theories spread like wildfire. It reminds one of the impact Radio had and Orson Welles broadcast of “War of the Worlds” which caused a mild panic. The ability to reach tens of millions in under a day in the true test of Social Media platforms
I do not envy the leaders at Social Media, having to create guidelines on what can be posted and what cannot and not seem to come across as violating our first amendment rights. They also must work with government and negotiate what data to provide government and what is a violation of peoples privacy. In the end it seems like a mission designed to fail. If I post a blatant lie and the President posts the same blatant lie, those are not the same thing, simply because I do not have a lot of followers and the President has tens of millions of followers. Does Twitter or Facebook treat these equally? Or in terms of today’s Politics when a group feels slighted do they create a new social media platform and how far do they go left or right before it becomes dangerous? One of the biggest threats the United States will face in the coming years is not from abroad, but internally: domestic terrorism. Social media platforms will likely be a huge enabler. This will require Social Media providers to work with both federal and local law enforcement. This comes at a time when many people view government with distrust (I view Russia with distrust but I guess I am a minority). It is a immense responsibility and enormous challenge to be held accountable for the truth and still make a profit. It is the American way.
Good Night and Good Luck
Hans Henrik Hoffmann December 29, 2020