Using the Legal System Against Facebook and Other Titans of the Internet

Two Democratic members of Congress are trying to stop big social media companies from doing so much damage:

Imagine clicking on a Facebook video alleging that a “deep-state cabal” of Satan-worshiping pedophiles stole the election from [a horrible person]. Moments later, your phone rings. The caller says, “Hey, it’s Freddie from Facebook. We noticed you just watched a cool video on our site, so we’ll send you a few dozen more videos about election-related conspiracy theories. As a bonus, we’ll connect you to some people who share your interest in ‘stopping the steal’. You guys should connect and explore your interest together!”

The scenario is, of course, made up. But it basically captures what social media platforms do every day. In the real world, “Freddie from Facebook” is not a person who calls you, but an algorithm that tracks you online, learns what content you spend the most time with and feeds you more of whatever maximizes your engagement — the time you spend on the platform. Greater engagement means that users see more ads, earning Facebook more revenue.

If you like cat videos, great; you’ll get an endless supply. But the same is true for the darkest content on the Web. Human nature being what it is, the content most likely to keep us glued to our screens is that which confirms our prejudices and triggers our basest emotions. Social media algorithms don’t have a conservative or liberal bias, but they know if we do. Their bias is to reinforce ours at the cost of making us more angry, anxious and afraid.

Facebook recently played down the role of its algorithms in exploiting users’ susceptibilities and enabling radicalization. The company says that users, not its product, are largely responsible for the extreme content showing up in their news feeds.

But Facebook knows how powerful its algorithms can be. In 2016, an internal Facebook study found that 64 percent of people who joined an extremist group on the platform did so only because its algorithm recommended it. Recently, a member of the Wolverine Watchmen, the militia accused of trying to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), said he joined the group when it “popped up as a suggestion post” on Facebook because he interacted with pages supporting the Second Amendment.

Policymakers often focus on whether Facebook, YouTube and Twitter should take down hate speech and disinformation. This is important, but these questions are about putting out fires. The problem is that the product these companies make is flammable. It’s that their algorithms deliver to each of us what they think we want to hear, creating individually tailored realities for every American and often amplifying the same content they eventually might choose to take down.

In 1996, Congress passed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says that websites are not legally liable for content that users post (with some exceptions). While the law helped to enable the growth of the modern Internet economy, it was enacted 25 years ago when many of the challenges we currently face could not have been predicted. Large Internet platforms no longer function like community bulletin boards; instead, they use sophisticated, opaque algorithms to determine what content their users see. If companies such as Facebook push us to view certain posts or join certain groups, should they bear no responsibility if doing so leads to real-world violence?

We recently introduced a bill that would remove Section 230 protection from large social media companies if their algorithms amplify content that contributes to an act of terrorism or to a violation of civil rights statutes meant to combat extremist groups. Our bill would not force YouTube, Facebook or Twitter to censor or remove content. Instead, it would allow courts in cases involving extreme harm to consider victims’ arguments against the companies on the merits, as opposed to quickly tossing out lawsuits on Section 230 grounds as would happen today.

Liability would incentivize changes the companies know how to make. For example, last year Facebook tested a new system in which users rated posts on their news feeds as “good” or “bad” for the world. The algorithm then fed those users more content that they deemed good while demoting the bad. The experiment worked. The company’s engineers referred to the result as the “nicer news feed.” But there was one problem. The nicer news feed led to less time on Facebook (and thus less ad revenue), so the experiment died.

This is the fundamental issue: Engagement-based algorithms made social media giants some of the most lucrative companies on Earth. They won’t voluntarily change the underlying architecture of their networks if it threatens their bottom line. We must decide what’s more important: protecting their profits or our democracy.

Unquote.

The authors of the article are Rep. Tom Malinowski, who represents a traditionally Republican district in suburban New Jersey, and Rep. Anna Eshoo, who represents the part of California that includes Silicon Valley.

This Really Is Breaking News

There’s talk about the impeachment trial ending this weekend, but that might not be possible. New accounts of what happened are appearing daily. In terms of the impeachment, this story is, to put it mildly, explosive. Maybe some Republicans in Congress want to give members of their party the courage to convict and disqualify the creep. That could result in the House managers calling witnesses. From CNN:

In an expletive-laced phone call with House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy while the Capitol was under attack, then-President Donald Trump said the rioters cared more about the election results than McCarthy did.

“Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Trump said, according to lawmakers who were briefed on the call afterward by McCarthy.

McCarthy insisted that the rioters were Trump’s supporters and begged Trump to call them off.

Trump’s comment set off what Republican lawmakers familiar with the call described as a shouting match between the two men. A furious McCarthy told the President the rioters were breaking into his office through the windows, and asked Trump, “Who the f–k do you think you are talking to?” according to a Republican lawmaker familiar with the call.

The newly revealed details of the call, described to CNN by multiple Republicans briefed on it, provide critical insight into the President’s state of mind as rioters were overrunning the Capitol. The existence of the call and some of its details have been previously reported and discussed publicly by McCarthy.

The Republican members of Congress said the exchange showed Trump had no intention of calling off the rioters even as lawmakers were pleading with him to intervene. Several said it amounted to a dereliction of his presidential duty.

“He is not a blameless observer, he was rooting for them,” a Republican member of Congress said. “On January 13, Kevin McCarthy said on the floor of the House that the President bears responsibility and he does.”

Speaking to the President from inside the besieged Capitol, McCarthy pressed Trump to call off his supporters and engaged in a heated disagreement about who comprised the crowd. Trump’s comment about the would-be insurrectionists caring more about the election results than McCarthy did was first mentioned by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican from Washington state, in a town hall earlier this week, and was confirmed to CNN by Herrera Beutler and other Republicans briefed on the conversation.

“You have to look at what he did during the insurrection to confirm where his mind was at,” Herrera Beutler, one of 10 House Republicans who voted last month to impeach Trump, told CNN. “That line right there demonstrates to me that either he didn’t care, which is impeachable, because you cannot allow an attack on your soil, or he wanted it to happen and was OK with it, which makes me so angry.”

“We should never stand for that, for any reason, under any party flag,” she added, voicing her extreme frustration: “I’m trying really hard not to say the F-word.”

“I think it speaks to the former President’s mindset,” said Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, an Ohio Republican who also voted to impeach Trump last month. “He was not sorry to see his unyieldingly loyal vice president or the Congress under attack by the mob he inspired. In fact, it seems he was happy about it or at the least enjoyed the scenes that were horrifying to most Americans across the country.”

As senators prepare to determine Trump’s fate, multiple Republicans thought the details of the call were important to the proceedings because they believe it paints a damning portrait of Trump’s lack of action during the attack. At least one of the sources who spoke to CNN took detailed notes of McCarthy’s recounting of the call.

Trump and McCarthy did not respond to requests for comment.

It took Trump several hours after the attack began to eventually encourage his supporters to “go home in peace” — a tweet that came at the urging of his top aides.

At Trump’s impeachment trial Friday, his lawyers argued that Trump did in fact try to calm the rioters with a series of tweets while the attack unfolded. But his lawyers cherry-picked his tweets, focusing on his request for supporters to “remain peaceful” without mentioning that he also attacked then-Vice President Mike Pence and waited hours to explicitly urge rioters to leave the Capitol.

It’s unclear to what extent these new details were known by the House Democratic impeachment managers or whether the team considered calling McCarthy as a witness. The managers have preserved the option to call witnesses in the ongoing impeachment trial, although that option remains unlikely as the trial winds down.

The House Republican leader had been forthcoming with his conference about details of his conversations with Trump on and after January 6.

Trump himself has not taken any responsibility in public. [Actually, he’s said his behavior was “totally appropriate”.]

If You Ever Hear Anybody Say There’s No Difference Between Them

Ordinarily, Democrats and Republicans adopt a platform at their national conventions, setting forth the goals and priorities of their presidential nominee. This is one way for voters to compare the candidates and decide who to support. Last year, the Republicans didn’t really bother to produce a platform. They simply endorsed the platform from 2016:

RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda;

RESOVLVED, That the 2020 Republican National Convention will adjourn without adopting a new platform until the 2024 Republican National Convention;

RESOLVED, That any motion to amend the 2016 Platform or to adopt a new platform, including any motion to suspend the procedures that will allow doing so, will be ruled out of order.

In other words, we are in favor of whatever the president wants to do, whatever that might turn out to be. Four years have passed, we’re in the middle of a deadly pandemic and we have nothing new to say about anything.

This week, a new Republican congressman from North Carolina sent an email to his colleagues. It said “I have built my staff around comms [“communications”] rather than legislation”. He now has a job in our national legislature, but he’s more dedicated to doing interviews and issuing statements than being a legislator. The editors of The Charlotte Observer aren’t enthusiastic about their state’s new representative:

We’re all for public officials being attentive to the “public” part of their title. It’s good for everyone when elected representatives explain what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. But on behalf of a whole lot of North Carolinians, we have a request regarding one of those officials:

Can someone please keep Madison Cawthorn away from the cameras? And the microphones? And really, most situations in which he publicly tries to turn words into meaningful thoughts?

This is the context when Republican politicians demand that President Biden address some of their priorities. The natural question is: What priorities?

Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post expands on the difference between the two parties:

The Biden administration has entered office with a whirlwind of activity. “Whole government” initiatives and executive orders on racial inequality and climate change are married with an ambitious covid-19 relief plan. There are briefings galore, with both experts and White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki, who on Wednesday gave us a peek into the sort of salesmanship the administration is employing to gain bipartisan support. The president, the vice president, the director of the National Economic Council, the domestic policy director, the chief of staff and the legislative affairs team are talking to individual lawmakers, the Problem Solvers Caucus, relevant committee members, mayors, governors and more to seek consensus on a covid-19 plan. There is no room for downtime, let alone complacency in this White House.

To many, it is stunning to see such energy, urgency and activity coming from the White House. Whereas Republicans are loath to even acknowledge crises for fear of indicting their own former president’s performance, Democrats have plans, executive orders and bills to address dozens of problems, not to mention a fleet of nominees waiting to get started.

And what are Republicans doing? Well, over in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took days to agree on an organizing resolution to get the new session underway. The vast majority of Senate Republicans said they do not want to have a trial to hold the instigator of a violent insurrection accountable. . . . They are stalling on the confirmation of a new homeland security secretary. They have no alternative relief package for covid-19. Most of their time seems to be absorbed whining about “censorship” or claiming Democrats are being “divisive.” They are offering no response to any of the multiple crises we face (e.g., climate change, the economy, health care, racial justice, domestic terrorism). Their “big idea” is to wait and see if the pandemic and economy get worse.

For years, the Republican Party has not been about policy or governance. It is certainly not about encouraging voting or expanding its party to reach new demographics. Instead, it has become a select club of malcontents. It has created a self-perpetuating grievance machine designed to further inflame their base.

Why do Republicans even want to hold power? Aside from appointing judges, the Senate has accomplished virtually nothing of significance since the 2017 tax cut. While running for reelection, the former president was continually stumped when asked what he would do in his second term.

The party’s antagonism toward the federal government has now morphed into hostility toward truth and governing at all. Its agenda is a list of buzzwords and lies to justify why it should do nothing (Climate hoax! Socialism!), culminating in the mother of all incendiary messages: the Big Lie that the election was stolen. The GOP seems to exist solely to promote resentment and to engage in performance art for intellectually dishonest and vapid right-wing media.

Maybe Republicans should give up running for office altogether because they have no interest in policy or governing. They can cut out the time-consuming task of showing up for their day jobs and devote all their time to what really drives them — raising money, stoking anger, tweeting and appearing on right-wing media. . . .

Members of Congress Want Action from Facebook, YouTube and Twitter

Below is a press release from my congressman. It contains links to letters he and another member of Congress sent to the CEOs of three social media behemoths. The letters represent the view of dozens of representatives. Each letter is worth looking at, since each one highlights specific problems relating to the company in question:

Today, in the aftermath of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, Congressman Tom Malinowski (NJ-7) and Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18) sent letters to the CEOs of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter urging the companies to address the fundamental design features of their social networks that facilitate the spread of extreme, radicalizing content to their users.

Representatives Malinowski and Eshoo, along with dozens of their colleagues, called on the companies to reexamine their policy maximizing user engagement as the basis for algorithmic sorting and promotion of news and information, and to make permanent and platform-wide design changes to limit the spread of harmful, conspiratorial content. 

The lawmakers note that the rioters who attacked the Capitol earlier this month were radicalized in part in digital echo chambers that these platforms designed, built, and maintained, and that the platforms are partially responsible for undermining our shared sense of objective reality, for intensifying fringe political beliefs, for facilitating connections between extremists, leading some of them to commit real-world, physical violence.

To view the full text of the letters and their respective signers click on the links below.

  • Letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook 
  • Letter to Susan Wojcicki and Sundar Pichai, YouTube; Alphabet/Google 
  • Letter to Jack Dorsey, Twitter 

“Social media platforms’ algorithms are designed to feed each of us increasingly hateful versions of what we already hate, and fearful versions of what we already fear, so that we stay glued to our screens for as long as possible. In this way, they regularly promote and recommend white supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-government, and other conspiracy-oriented material to the very people who are most susceptible to it — some of whom just attacked our Capitol,” said Rep. Malinowski. “We are urging the CEOs of these large social media companies to make permanent and platform-wide changes to limit the frictionless spread of extreme, radicalizing content – something they’ve shown they are capable of doing but are consciously choosing not to.” 

“For years social media companies have allowed harmful disinformation to spread through their platforms, polluting the minds of the American people. Online disinformation is not just about removing bad content. I see it as largely a product design issue. The algorithmic amplification and recommendation systems that platforms employ spread content that’s evocative over what’s true,” said Rep. Eshoo. “The horrific damage to our democracy wrought on January 6th demonstrated how these social media platforms played a role in radicalizing and emboldening terrorists to attack our Capitol. These American companies must fundamentally rethink algorithmic systems that are at odds with democracy.”

Last Fall, Representatives Malinowski and Eshoo introduced the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act, legislation to hold large social media platforms accountable for their algorithmic amplification of harmful, radicalizing content that leads to offline violence.

Rep. Malinowski represents New Jersey’s 7th congressional district. . . .Rep. Eshoo represents California’s 18th congressional district, which includes much of Silicon Valley. . . .

It Has To Be Different This Time

Joe Biden’s proposed Covid-19 relief plan is a big deal. From Vox:

The proposal, called the American Rescue Plan, is divvied up into three buckets:

$400 billion for dealing with the coronavirus, including vaccines and testing;

$1 trillion in direct relief to families; and

$400 billion in aid to communities and businesses.

It includes money for testing, vaccines, and public health workers; $400 a week in extended federal unemployment insurance through September; rental assistance; emergency paid leave; and funding for reopening schools, among other items. And, as Democrats promised when campaigning in Georgia, Biden’s plan would send out another $1,400 in stimulus checks, bringing the total this year to $2,000.

Greg Sargent of The Washington Post discusses the relatively encouraging politics of the matter:

The sheer scale of the economic rescue package that Joe Biden has unveiled has surprised a lot of observers who were expecting the president-elect to offer something more in line with his centrist, incrementalist past.

In unveiling the new [roughly] $1.9 trillion package, Biden declared that rather than worry about “our debt situation,” it’s time to spend big “with interest rates at historic lows.” As Slate’s Jordan Weissmann put it: “I would not have anticipated that Joe Biden would become a clear and forceful advocate of deficit spending.”

What accounts for this ambition? Most obviously, this crisis is truly extraordinary. The new leadership must execute a massive vaccine-distribution operation amid a broader effort to tame a raging pandemic, while securing assistance to struggling Americans plus a big burst of stimulus spending to address a deepening economic crisis.

Another obvious answer is that the politics have shifted. The Democratic Party has moved left on fundamental economic questions, due in large part to advocacy from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others.

But still another reason, one that has been less remarked-upon, is that many Democrats have lived through what happened when former president Barack Obama inherited another major economic crisis from another Republican president.

As has been endlessly hashed out, Obama opted for a stimulus that fell short of what was needed. Putting aside why that happened, what everyone now knows is that it was a serious mistake. Democrats lost the House in 2010 and spent the remainder of Obama’s presidency locked in brutal fiscal trench warfare with a GOP determined to starve the recovery with austerity to cripple his presidency under the guise of fake concerns about spending and deficits.

Many Democrats who lived through that, a lot of whom are still in Congress and some of whom are advising Biden — who himself lived through it as vice president — must be wary of a repeat.

Making them even more wary, one hopes, is the fact that Republican deficit concerns evaporated once a Republican became president. Indeed, the economy was good (at least until the coronavirus shattered it) precisely because it was fueled by stimulus.

As Neil Irwin reports, the Trump years have caused a change among economists, who are now more receptive to a hotter economy — with higher deficits and lower unemployment — and less wary of inflation than they traditionally have been. That has fueled a political shift toward tolerance of deficits, making Democrats less wary of bad-faith criticism for overspending.

But on top of that sea change, Democrats have to be feeling extra-burned by the fact that the GOP pivoted so abruptly from voicing phony deficit concerns under a Democratic president to not caring about them anymore under a Republican.

The lesson of those years is that Txxxx the political beneficiary of that chicanery. He consistently had high approval ratings on the economy, and he might have won reelection on the strength of that if the coronavirus hadn’t intervened.

Democrats appear to be learning from that lesson right now.

On still another front, the makeup of the Senate Democratic caucus is different. During the Obama years you had centrist old-liners chairing key committees . . . Expected to chair those respective committees in the new Senate now are Ron Wyden of Oregon, Sanders, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. All are far more progressive than those previous Democratic chairs. . . .

Wyden, for his part, believes this combination of things — an awareness of getting played by phony GOP deficit concerns and more progressive Senate committee chairs — will make this time very different from 2009 and 2010.

“The key lessons we learned were the importance of not assuming there will be multiple bites at the apple and not taking your foot off the gas in the middle of economic recovery,” Wyden told me in a statement. “We cannot let a popular recovery agenda get derailed by fiscal fearmongering that we know is unjustified and phony.”

“Committee chairs are going to be aggressive, and want to get things done,” Wyden added. “Overall, I think the dynamics have changed a lot since 2009.”

To be sure, it still remains to be seen how big a package Biden will actually wrest from Congress. He has already announced he hopes to pursue bipartisan support in the Senate rather than try to get the legislation passed with a simple majority via the “reconciliation” process.

So it’s still possible that Biden could end up on a futile hunt for Republican support or end up compromising his stimulus package downward. But there is at least some reason for optimism that Democrats have learned from what happened last time. . . .