Repeal Section 230!!!1!!!1!*
Repealing this provision would kill social media dead. Would that really be so bad?
Above: Josh Hawley expresses his solidarity with a lawless mob concerned with Pennsylvania’s alleged failure to follow its own state constitution.*
Pandering demagogues like Josh Hawley want to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. And you know what? He might have a point.* Maybe we should repeal the greatest protection for free speech we have in this country. Because the thing is, social media is kind of driving us crazy.
Let’s start with Section 230: what it does, and what it doesn’t do. Later in the email, I will talk about how it protects the very ability of social media to exist — and how maybe that’s a bad thing* because social media is so obviously terrible.
Amongst the Toughest of conservative Tough Guys — you know, the type who give socialist Black Power salutes to a lily-white Vanilla ISIS mob preparing to storm our nation’s Capitol to accomplish an insurrection motivated by blatant lies — to those folks, repealing Section 230 is both a national security imperative and the biggest free speech issue facing our nation. That is of course a very, very stupid point of view, espoused by the ignorant and by people who know better but are lying to you.
By now, most people ought to be familiar with Section 230 and how it works, but from cruising these here Interwebz I can tell that is not the case. In short, it is a provision that allows platforms — like Twitter, Facebook, or my blog patterico.com — to allow people to post their own views on that platform without the platform being legally liable for all the stupid and defamatory things those people say. If you’re looking for paragraphs of detail on the topic, you can consult this 2019 post on my blog. If you follow that link and the links in that post, you’ll find all the support you need for everything I am about to say in summary fashion.
First: there is no “publisher/platform” distinction.
You are no doubt used to seeing the “moderating content turns a platform into a publisher” argument confidently asserted all over conservative media, and by “conservative” politicians. It is wrong.
For example, the junior Senator from Texas, one Rafael Edward Cruz, has been quoted as saying: “The predicate for Section 230 immunity under the CDA is that you’re a neutral public forum.” That is false. Sen. Cruz is full of that stuff that Popehat just said he is full of — and he is not to be TrustTED or taken seriously when speaking about this issue.
The junior Senator from Missouri, one Joshua David Hawley, is a little more sly about how he makes the argument. But before I get into Hawley’s position on social media, can I digress for just a second? Because I want to spend a moment talking about just what a slippery huckster this guy is, as exemplified by his recent op-ed defending his vote to nullify the votes of citizens who voted for Joe Biden in a free and fair election:
As to my specific objection: I objected with regard to Pennsylvania because the state failed to follow its own constitution. The Pennsylvania constitution has been interpreted by the state’s courts for over a century to prohibit mail-in voting, except in clearly stated circumstances. But last year, Pennsylvania politicians adopted universal mail-in voting anyway. To make matters worse, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court then changed the rules for when mail-in ballots could be returned. And when Pennsylvania citizens tried to go to court to object, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the case on procedural grounds, in violation of its own precedent. To this day, no court has found the mail-in voting scheme to be constitutional, or even heard the merits of the case.
I also objected to point out the unprecedented interference of the Big Tech corporations in this election in favor of the Biden campaign, not just in Pennsylvania but everywhere. Their interference in our democratic process has only accelerated in recent days.
There is a word for this. As Ronald Reagan said: it’s “an extremely useful, time-tested original American word, one with deep roots in our rich agricultural and farming tradition.” (Thanks to Tom Nichols for the pointer to that great quote.)
Here’s how you know that word applies. I’m not sure if you have watched videos of the mob at the Capitol. If you haven’t, you owe it to yourself to watch some. They’re not hard to find, but this is one of the better videos, showing insurrectionists chanting about treason and “1776.” One man screams to general acclamation that they need to start hunting down the corrupt politicians one by one and “Hang ‘em!” as another man yells: “Traitors to the guillotine!” Here is a link to a video showing a mob confronting a Capitol Hill police officer as a man yells: “Hey, where are they countin’ the votes?” Two minutes into another compelling video from inside the Capitol, a journalist asks a fanatic why people are storming the Capitol. The fanatic replies: “they don’t get to steal it from us!”
These people were not concerned with the details of whether the Pennsylvania Supreme Court properly ruled that the state’s election laws complied with Pennsylvania’s state constitution. They were not looking to hang Mike Pence because Twitter had appended warning labels to some of President’s Trump’s most dishonest tweets. They genuinely thought the election had been stolen. They thought they were leading a revolution.
Now take a look at the photo embedded at the beginning of this missive. Do you really believe that, when Josh Hawley made that socialistic Black Power gesture to the Capitol mob, he thought that mob had assembled because of its belief that a facial challenge to Pennsylvania’s Act of October 31, 2019, P.L. 552, No. 77 was improperly rejected by that state’s highest court?
Of course not. Hawley knew the mob thought the election had been stolen. And he was happy to pretend it had been — simply because he thought it might advance his presidential ambitions. Everything this man does can be viewed through the lens of his insatiable thirst for naked power.
Which brings us back to Hawley’s pandering on Section 230. Hawley is among the people who know better, but are lying to you. Hawley clerked for John Roberts. He may be amoral and completely lacking in good judgment, but he understands the law. He understands how Section 230 works. But Hawley also knows that a favorite pastime of Tough Conservatives is to whine incessantly about how they have been mistreated by social media companies. (Many of conservatives’ complaints are valid, by the way, but their level of victimization and melodramatic sniveling makes it hard to waste too much energy worrying about that.) So Hawley jumps on the populist bandwagon of designating Big Tech as Populist Enemy #1 — and lying about Section 230 is the club with which he hopes to beat Twitter and Facebook into submission.
In addition to lying about what Section 230 does, Hawley claims that social media ought to be “treated like a publisher” when they “act like a publisher.” In May 2020, Hawley proudly tweeted out a fact-challenged letter he had written to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and in the tweet asked Dorsey: “Why should Twitter continue to get special treatment from government as a mere distributor of other people’s content if you are going to editorialize and comment like a publisher?” Sen. Hawley is also full of that very same nasty smelly stuff that Sen. Cruz is full of, and Hawley is similarly not to be taken seriously on this issue. Justin Amash had a long Twitter thread demolishing the points made by Hawley in that letter. I think the first tweet captures the key distinction:
I will again refer you to my previous post and the links therein if you have questions about this, but the bottom line is this: Twitter is not liable for every tweet that appears on Twitter. They are liable only for the content they themselves create. And this is no different from the principles by which newspapers operate. Moderating content does not make you a “publisher” whether you are a social media company or a newspaper or anyone else.
Moreover, it is quite simply insane to claim that Twitter ought to be subject to lawsuits for any tweet that defames someone. Have you ever considered the sheer number of tweets that appear on Twitter? Take a moment to do so. According to one estimate, there are 6,000 tweets per second on Twitter — a number that corresponds to over 500 million tweets per day and something like 200 billion (about 189 billion according to my math) tweets per year. Twitter has about 4600 employees, which by my calculations means that if every employee did nothing but read tweets to see if they were defamatory, each would have to read about 41 million tweets a year (over one a second per employee, with no sleep).
Put simply, without Section 230, Twitter would not exist. It could not exist.
Which leads us to our next question: “Would it be such a bad thing if Twitter and Facebook were to disappear?*
Like Aaron Altman in Broadcast News, delivering his speech about Tom being the devil, I’m semi-serious here.*
You may have noticed that 2020 was kind of a bad year. Not only was there a worldwide pandemic that so far has cost us over two million lives across the globe, but at the same time, people seem to have gone crazy in large numbers. First we had (in addition to many peaceful protests) many violent riots over the death of George Floyd during the summer — riots which in some places have not yet calmed down. Again: while most of the protesting was indeed peaceful, a notable subset of “protests” were what Big Media likes to call “mostly peaceful” — in other words, what normal people call incredibly violent. A police station was burned to the ground in Minneapolis. So-called “autonomous zones” of anarchy were carved out in cities like Portland, with the tacit approval of city leadership, and people were murdered inside them. And then, as if to assure us that 2021 will be no better, we had the aforementioned spectacle of an utterly insane horde of thousands of maniacs at the Capitol less than two weeks ago. When is the last time we saw so much mental illness on open display in one twelve-month span of time?
I’m sure this is not a tremendously original thought, but my own personal theory is that social media lies at the heart of this insanity. Let’s look at two examples. (I will likely elaborate on these examples in a future newsletter.)
On one hand, people on the fringe left commonly express the belief that black folks can reasonably expect at any moment to be stopped by police for absolutely no reason and simply murdered because of the color of their skin. I believe this view is a predictable result of a steady diet of atrocities (the murder of George Floyd being high on the list) being fed to lefties constantly in their social media feeds — while precious few lefties are reading about the very similar deaths of white folks like Tony Timpa, because such incidents don’t have the convenient racial narrative it takes for such an incident to go viral.
Is there racism in this country? Of course there is. Is there so much racism that literally every cop is out there actively looking for black folks to murder? Of course not — but avid consumers of lefty social media will often tell you otherwise.
On the other hand, many on the fringe right express the belief that the election was outright stolen through a massive, widespread, coordinated fraud on the part of Joe Biden and his supporters. I believe this is a predictable result of President Trump, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Mark Levin, Sidney Powell, Lin Wood, Gateway Pundit, and other conspiracy theorists constantly pushing an utterly false narrative for over two months on social media.
Is there voter fraud in this country? Of course there is. Is there any evidence that it was so widespread, one-sided, and coordinated that it took a “landslide” election for Donald Trump and threw it to Joe Biden? Of course not — but avid consumers of righty social media will often tell you otherwise.
In short, social media is causing large numbers of people to have a very distorted perspective of reality, and people are taking to the streets in service of these fanciful and wholly exaggerated views of certain flaws in our society.
It’s a sickness, and I believe social media lies at the heart of it.
So: repeal Section 230!!!!1!1!! Because doing so will kill social media, and thus kill the sickness.*
If you have scrolled down to the bottom of this missive, to see the meaning of the asterisks scattered throughout this piece, you know I’m not entirely serious here. So if the heavy hand of government is not the answer, what is?
Well, we should probably set limits on our own use of social media. I freely admit that I speak to you as a hypocrite who is doing a very poor job of taking his own advice. Frankly, I hope that by saying this publicly, I will embarrass myself into starting to set my own limits. Like drinking alcohol, social media use has skyrocketed during the pandemic — and all you have to do to assess the impact of this is to conduct the following mental comparison. First, take any day you have wasted away on social media and ask yourself how you felt at the end of the day. Then take any day where you spent a good deal of time outdoors on a hike and ask yourself how you felt at the end of that day. It is the rare person who feels better after a day of yelling at virtual strangers on Twitter than after a day of walking the dogs among the trees and the flowers.
Books like “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Jonathan Haidt and FIRE President Greg Lukianoff have convincingly described how social media has led to an epidemic of loneliness, and how drug abuse, depression, and suicide rates began to take off among teenagers with the introduction of the iPhone.
Social media is literally killing us. It kills teenagers and others by contributing to suicide. It likely contributed to the killing of David Dorn during BLM riots and the murder of Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick at our nation’s Capitol. And it’s not having a great effect on your life, either.
No, the people trying to kill social media by advocating a repeal of Section 230 are not right.
But maybe it’s time for you and me to shut off social media for a while, and go for a nice long walk outside.
*I am not actually serious, at least not entirely. I shouldn’t have to say this, but like many things I shouldn’t have to say, I’m going to go ahead and say it. First, as longtime readers of my blog know, I have a tendency to use a tongue in cheek tone — and I have learned over the years that irony doesn’t always come across in emails or other forms of Internet communication. So I have decided to sprinkle the piece with asterisks that all guide you to this paragraph, to remind you that my tone here is tinged with at least a touch of irony. Also, I hate to explain the joke, but I am going to explain the joke: the mixed exclamation points and ones in the headline are a very, very old meme designed to mock people who get overly excited about something. The idea is that they are so wound up that they angrily or enthusiastically hit the exclamation point key over and over — but in their excitement, they occasionally forget to hold down the shift key while doing so. So yes, when I “advocate” repealing Section 230 in the headline, I am not actually advocating it. While I am deadly serious about the effect social media is having on this country, I hope the piece makes clear as a whole that I don’t advocate killing it with a legal sledgehammer, but managing our dependence on it as a society.