Looking Toward January 6, 2025

Republicans are predictably screaming about their cult leader being kept off Facebook for the time being. They’re citing the First Amendment, of course, but that’s got nothing to do with social media platforms (until the government starts operating its own platform or regulating their content).

Or as our congressman, Tom Malinowski, tweeted:

The 1st Amendment gives us the right to say crazy things without gov’t interference. It doesn’t require Random House to give us a book contract, or FOX to give us a prime time show, or Facebook to amplify our rantings to billions of people. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.

A much more significant issue is the speed with which the Republican Party is deteriorating. From Greg Sargent of The Washington Post

Rep. Liz Cheney’s fate appears sealed: Republicans are set to oust the Wyoming Republican as the No. 3 in the House GOP leadership . . . This is being widely depicted as a battle over the past . . . Most accounts portray it as a sign that in today’s GOP, fealty to the former president is a bedrock requirement, denouncing his lies about 2020 has become unacceptable, and telling the truth about the Jan. 6 insurrection is disqualifying.

All that is true, but the forward-looking dimension to this story is getting lost. What also seems unavoidably at stake is that the GOP appears to be plunging headlong into a level of full-blown hostility to democracy that has deeply unsettling future ramifications.

. . . Republicans may be unshackling themselves from any obligation to acquiesce to future presidential election outcomes they don’t like — that is, liberating themselves to overturn those outcomes by any means necessary.

. . . A Cheney spokesperson denounced her GOP enemies for wanting to “perpetuate lies about the 2020 election and attempt to whitewash what happened on Jan. 6.” This comes after Cheney told GOP colleagues that those lies are “poison in the bloodstream of our democracy” and that insurrection “is a line that cannot be crossed.”

Cheney has also urged Republicans not to turn “their back on the rule of law.” And she insists that the commission examining Jan. 6 should focus on the insurrection, not on leftist extremism that Republicans are hyping to muddy the waters around their ongoing radicalization.

So why is all this disqualifying? [It’s because] she’s demanding something important from fellow Republicans: a full and unequivocal renunciation of the lie that the election’s outcome was dubious. . . .

Now consider what else we’re seeing. Some Republicans are increasingly asserting a willingness to overturn future elections: Rep. Jody Hice’s primary challenge to the Georgia secretary of state is driven by the promise to use his power to invalidate future outcomes.

Other Republicans are asserting the freedom to keep alive the fiction that the election was stolen forever. In Arizona, a GOP-sponsored recount is underway [in hopes of] bolstering that false conclusion.

This combination is toxic: Republicans are untethering themselves from any obligation to recognize future legitimate election outcomes, which will provide the rationale to overturn them, a freedom they are also effectively in process of appropriating. Cheney is insisting on a GOP future premised on a full repudiation of these tendencies, and getting punished for it.

Guess what: These same House Republicans might control the lower chamber when Congress is counting electors after the 2024 presidential election.

“We should start to very much worry about what Jan. 6, 2025, looks like,” Edward Foley, a renowned election law scholar and a Post contributing columnist, told me.

Imagine a 2024 election decided in one state, where a GOP-controlled legislature sends electors for the GOP candidate in defiance of a close popular vote. The same House Republicans who punished Cheney — many of whom already voted against President Biden’s electors, but now control the House and have continued radicalizing — could vote to certify that slate. . . .

This places burdens on Democrats. Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told me that this obliges Democrats to level with voters about the threat Republicans pose to democratic stability.

“If Cheney is ousted, Democrats will have to make the radicalization of the GOP a major part of the 2022 conversation,” Rosenberg said.

And as elections scholar Rick Hasen told me, Democrats should try to get patriotic Republicans to support revisions to the Electoral Count Act, to make it “harder for a legislature to send a separate slate when there was no problem with how the election was run.”

Cheney’s ouster should prompt this, along with a much greater public and media focus on the brute reality of the GOP’s fundamental turn away from democracy.

“The core component of the democratic process is that we count the votes as cast,” Foley told me. The punishing of Cheney, Foley concluded, suggests that the Republican Party might [might???] be institutionally “abandoning the very essence of democracy”.

Keep This in Mind When You Hear the Right Claim They’re Censored on Social Media

It’s bullshit. From The Washington Post:

A new report calls conservative claims of social media censorship “a form of disinformation”.

[The] report concludes that social networks aren’t systematically biased against conservatives, directly contradicting Republican claims that social media companies are censoring them. 

Recent moves by Twitter and Facebook to suspend [the former president’s] accounts in the wake of the violence at the Capitol are inflaming conservatives’ attacks on Silicon Valley. But New York University researchers today released a report stating claims of anti-conservative bias are “a form of disinformation: a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it.” 

The report found there is no trustworthy large-scale data to support these claims, and even anecdotal examples that tech companies are biased against conservatives “crumble under close examination.” The report’s authors said, for instance, the companies’ suspensions of [the ex-president’s] accounts were “reasonable” given his repeated violation of their terms of service — and if anything, the companies took a hands-off approach for a long time given [his] position.

The report also noted several data sets underscore the prominent place conservative influencers enjoy on social media. For instance, CrowdTangle data shows that right-leaning pages dominate the list of sources providing the most engaged-with posts containing links on Facebook. Conservative commentator Dan Bongino, for instance, far out-performed most major news organizations in the run-up to the 2020 election. 

The report also cites an October 2020 study in which Politico found “right-wing social media influencers, conservative media outlets, and other GOP supporters” dominated the online discussion of Black Lives Matter and election fraud, two of the biggest issues in 2020. Working with the nonpartisan think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue, researchers found users shared the most viral right-wing social media content about Black Lives Matter more than ten times as often as the most popular liberal posts on the topic. People also shared right-leaning claims on election fraud about twice as often as they shared liberals’ or traditional media outlets’ posts discussing the issue.

But even so, baseless claims of anti-conservative bias are driving Republicans’ approach to regulating tech. Republican lawmakers have concentrated their hearing exchanges with tech executives on the issue, and it’s been driving their legislative proposals. . . .

The New York University researchers called on Washington regulators to focus on what they called “the very real problems of social media.”

“Only by moving forward from these false claims can we begin to pursue that agenda in earnest,” Paul Barrett, the report’s primary author and deputy director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights said in a statement. 

The researchers want the Biden administration to work with Congress to overhaul the tech industry. 

Their recommendations focus particularly on changing Section 230, a decades-old law shielding tech companies from lawsuits for the photos, videos and posts people share on their websites. . . . 

The researchers warn against completely repealing the law. Instead, they argue companies should only receive Section 230 immunity if they agree to accept more responsibilities in policing content such as disinformation and hate speech. The companies could be obligated to ensure their recommendation engines don’t favor sensationalist content or unreliable material just to drive better user engagement. 

“Social media companies that reject these responsibilities would forfeit Section 230’s protection and open themselves to costly litigation.” the report proposed.

The researchers also called for the creation of a new Digital Regulatory Agency, which would serve as an independent body and be tasked with enforcing a revised Section 230. 
The report also suggested Biden could empower a “special commission” to work with the industry on improving content moderation, which would be able to move much more quickly than legal battles over antitrust issues. It also called for the president to expand the task force announced by Biden on online harassment to focus on a broad range of harmful content. 

They also called for greater transparency in Silicon Valley. 

The researchers said the platforms typically don’t provide much justification for sanctioning an account or post, and when people are in the dark they assume the worst. 

“The platforms should give an easily understood explanation every time they sanction a post or account, as well as a readily available means to appeal enforcement actions,” the report said. “Greater transparency—such as that which Twitter and Facebook offered when they took action against [a certain terrible person] in January— would help to defuse claims of political bias, while clarifying the boundaries of acceptable user conduct.”

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. . . .

One Way to Start Fixing the Internet

Yaël Eisenstat has been a CIA officer, White House adviser and Facebook executive. She says the problem with social media isn’t just what users post — it’s what the platforms do with that content. From Harvard Business Review:

While the blame for President Txxxx’s incitement to insurrection lies squarely with him, the biggest social media companies — most prominently my former employer, Facebook — are absolutely complicit. They have not only allowed Txxxx to lie and sow division for years, their business models have exploited our biases and weaknesses and abetted the growth of conspiracy-touting hate groups and outrage machines. They have done this without bearing any responsibility for how their products and business decisions effect our democracy; in this case, including allowing an insurrection to be planned and promoted on their platforms. .  . .

The events of last week . . . demand an immediate response. In the absence of any U.S. laws to address social media’s responsibility to protect our democracy, we have ceded the decision-making about which rules to write, what to enforce, and how to steer our public square to CEOs of for-profit internet companies. Facebook intentionally and relentlessly scaled to dominate the global public square, yet it does not bear any of the responsibilities of traditional stewards of public goods, including the traditional media.

It is time to define responsibility and hold these companies accountable for how they aid and abet criminal activity. And it is time to listen to those who have shouted from the rooftops about these issues for years, as opposed to allowing Silicon Valley leaders to dictate the terms.

We need to change our approach not only because of the role these platforms have played in crises like last week’s, but also because of how CEOs have responded — or failed to respond. The reactionary decisions on which content to take down, which voices to downgrade, and which political ads to allow have amounted to tinkering around the margins of the bigger issue: a business model that rewards the loudest, most extreme voices.

Yet there does not seem to be the will to reckon with that problem. Mark Zuckerberg did not choose to block Txxxx’s account until after the U.S. Congress certified Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. . . . And while the decision by many platforms to silence Txxxx is an obvious response to this moment, it’s one that fails to address how millions of Americans have been drawn into conspiracy theories online and led to believe this election was stolen — an issue that has never been truly addressed by the social media leaders.

A look through the Twitter feed of Ashli Babbit, the woman who was killed while storming the Capitol, is eye-opening. A 14-year Air Force veteran, she spent the last months of her life retweeting conspiracy theorists, QAnon followers, and others calling for the overthrow of the government. . . . The likelihood that social media played a significant part in steering her down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories is high, but we will never truly know how her content was curated, what groups were recommended to her, who the algorithms steered her towards.

If the public, or even a restricted oversight body, had access to the Twitter and Facebook data to answer those questions, it would be harder for the companies to claim they are neutral platforms who merely show people what they want to see. Guardian journalist Julia Carrie Wong wrote in June of this year about how Facebook algorithms kept recommending QAnon groups to her. . . .  The key point is this: This is not about free speech and what individuals post on these platforms. It is about what the platforms choose to do with that content, which voices they decide to amplify, which groups are allowed to thrive and even grow at the hand of the platforms’ own algorithmic help.

So where do we go from here?

I have long advocated that governments must define responsibility for the real-world harms caused by these business models, and impose real costs for the damaging effects they are having on our public health, our public square, and our democracy. As it stands, there are no laws governing how social media companies treat political ads, hate speech, conspiracy theories, or incitement to violence. This issue is unduly complicated by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has been vastly over-interpreted to provide blanket immunity to all internet companies — or “internet intermediaries” — for any third-party content they host. Many argue that to solve some of these issues, Section 230, which dates back to 1996, must at least be updated. But how, and whether it alone will solve the myriad issues we now face with social media, is hotly debated.

One solution I continue to push is clarifying who should benefit from Section 230 to begin with, which often breaks down into the publisher vs. platform debate. To still categorize social media companies — who curate content, whose algorithms decide what speech to amplify, who nudge users towards the content that will keep them engaged, who connect users to hate groups, who recommend conspiracy theorists — as “internet intermediaries” who should enjoy immunity from the consequences of all this is beyond absurd. The notion that the few tech companies who steer how more than 2 billion people communicate, find information, and consume media enjoy the same blanket immunity as a truly neutral internet company makes it clear that it is time for an upgrade to the rules. They are not just a neutral intermediary.

However, that doesn’t mean that we need to completely re-write or kill Section 230. Instead, why not start with a narrower step by redefining what an “internet intermediary” means? Then we could create a more accurate category to reflect what these companies truly are, such as “digital curators” whose algorithms decide what content to boost, what to amplify, how to curate our content. And we can discuss how to regulate in an appropriate manner, focusing on requiring transparency and regulatory oversight of the tools such as recommendation engines, targeting tools, and algorithmic amplification rather than the non-starter of regulating actual speech.

By insisting on real transparency around what these recommendation engines are doing, how the curation, amplification, and targeting are happening, we could separate the idea that Facebook shouldn’t be responsible for what a user posts from their responsibility for how their own tools treat that content. I want us to hold the companies accountable not for the fact that someone posts misinformation or extreme rhetoric, but for how their recommendation engines spread it, how their algorithms steer people towards it, and how their tools are used to target people with it.

To be clear: Creating the rules for how to govern online speech and define platforms’ responsibility is not a magic wand to fix the myriad harms emanating from the internet. This is one piece of a larger puzzle of things that will need to change if we want to foster a healthier information ecosystem. But if Facebook were obligated to be more transparent about how they are amplifying content, about how their targeting tools work, about how they use the data they collect on us, I believe that would change the game for the better.

As long as we continue to leave it to the platforms to self-regulate, they will continue to merely tinker around the margins of content policies and moderation. We’ve seen that the time for that is long past — what we need now is to reconsider how the entire machine is designed and monetized. Until that happens, we will never truly address how platforms are aiding and abetting those intent on harming our democracy.

Twitter Banning Him May Be More Important Than We Thought

Paul Waldman of The Washington Post thinks we haven’t yet realized how important it is that Twitter banned the creep. That’s because journalists and others who dominate the national conversation use Twitter a lot:

The silence is remarkable.

For all that’s happening — President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, the threat of right-wing violence, the coronavirus death toll approaching 400,000 — the loudest voice in American life for the past five years has been reduced to a whisper. President Txxxx is not on Twitter.

On Jan. 8, Twitter’s leadership finally decided that it had had enough of Txxxx using the platform to spread lies and incite violence and barred him from the service. According to a new Post/ABC News poll, 58 percent of the public supported the move (though that includes 91 percent of Democrats and only 16 percent of Republicans).

But the magnitude of that decision still hasn’t been fully appreciated. The fact that this one social media company decided to shut down this one account might have completely reshaped American politics for the coming few years.

Until 10 days ago, nearly everyone assumed that Txxxx would be in a unique place for a defeated ex-president, retaining a hold on his party’s base that would make him the axis around which the Republican world revolved.

His opinions would shape the party’s approach to Biden’s presidency. He would make or break Republican officeholders, depending on their loyalty to him. Everyone within the party — especially those who want to run for president themselves in 2024 — would have to grovel before him, just as they have for so long. The GOP would still be Txxxx’s party, in nearly every sense.

But not anymore.

As much as we’ve talked about Txxxx’s tweets for all these years, if anything we might have underestimated how central Twitter was to his power. Without it — especially as an ex-president — he’ll be like Samson without his hair, all his strength taken from him.

Twitter was so important to Txxxx, according to Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor at the . . . University of North Carolina, because of a few critical features of the platform itself and who uses it.

First, “Twitter is the space for political and media elites,” McGregor told me. Facebook has many more users, but journalists are on Twitter constantly, which means that when Txxxx spoke there, he was speaking to them.

So even if Facebook lets Txxxx back on (it, too, banned him, but so far only through the inauguration), that won’t give him the ability to send a missive and then sit back as one news organization after another runs stories about it, multiplying its effects. “Whatever he said on Twitter ended up on the news,” McGregor said. According to research McGregor conducted . . ., when President Barack Obama tweeted during his second term, 3 percent of the time the tweet would find its way into a news story. The figure for Txxxx’s tweets during his term was 65 percent.

Second, the platform provided him a place to speak uncontested. He could say whatever he wanted without being challenged, at least in the moment.

Third, his Twitter presence enabled him to constantly reinforce an affinity between himself and his supporters by speaking to them not only about politics but also about plenty of other topics.

Txxxx connected with them “because he was so genuinely himself, for better and for worse, on Twitter,” McGregor told me. They identified with his opinions about everything, whether it was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or the merits of KFC or the latest celebrity scandal.

“That’s the reason influencers of all stripes are successful, because of that sense of intimacy” that social media can create, McGregor said. [Twitter] allowed people to make that connection between him and themselves” as they responded to the news together.

When he’s not president, Txxxx will have means of speaking to the public — he can call in to “Fox & Friends,” for instance — but he won’t be surrounded by reporters waiting to write down his every word, so he’ll have to work harder to get the attention of the press. Without Twitter, he won’t be able to speak to his people on an hourly basis, maintaining that affinity and crowding out the other Republicans who might compete for their affection.

He could go to some upstart conservative social media platform, like Gab or Parler (if it gets restored). But those don’t have the mainstream legitimacy he craves, and reporters aren’t on them, so their reach is much more limited.

That means that when new events occur, Txxxx won’t be able to make himself the core of the story. He won’t be able to constantly remind Republicans that they need to fear him. While many of his supporters will remain loyal, others will drift away, not turning against him but just no longer thinking about him every day.

That will create a vacuum into which other Republicans can move as they position themselves for 2024, not because they’re such Twitter ninjas themselves, but because space will have been created for something more like a normal, non-Txxxx presidential nominating contest.

There are profound questions about the role social media now plays in our political process. I agree both with those who argue that Twitter banning Txxxx was long overdue (his account was the single most important nexus of misinformation on the entire platform) and that it’s deeply troubling that a private company has this much power.

But, for now, it does. And so one company’s decision to finally say no to a president who used it to inject poison into the American political bloodstream for years has remade the future of the Republican Party, and perhaps the whole country.

Txxxx will still play a role in his party and in our politics; we won’t shake off this horrific presidency so easily. But that blissful quiet, as we no longer have him shouting in our ears every day? We could get used to that.