The Problem with Calls for Social Media “Fairness”

by on September 6, 2018 · 0 comments

There has been an increasing outcry recently from conservatives that social media is conspiring to silence their voices.  Leading voices including President Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz have started calling for legislative or regulatory actions to correct this perceived “bias”. But these calls for fairness miss the importance of allowing such services to develop their own terms and for users to determine what services to use and the benefit that such services have been to conservatives.

Social media is becoming a part of our everyday lives and recent events have only increased our general awareness of this fact. More than half of American adults login to Facebook on a daily basis. As a result, some policymakers have argued that such sites are the new public square. In general, the First Amendment strictly limits what the government can do to limit speakers in public spaces and requires that such limits be applied equally to different points of view. At the same time, private entities are generally allowed to set terms regarding what speech may or may not be allowed on their own platforms.

The argument that modern day websites are the new public square and must maintain a neutral view point was recently rejected in a lawsuit between PraegerU and YouTube. Praeger believed that its conservative viewpoint was being silenced by YouTube decision to place many of its videos in “restricted mode.” In this case, the court found that YouTube was still acting as a private service rather than one filling a typical government role. Other cases have similarly asserted that Internet intermediaries have First Amendment rights to reject or limit ads or content as part of their own rights to speak or not speak. Conservatives have long been proponents of property rights, freedom of association, and free markets. But now, faced with platforms choosing to exercise their rights, rather than defend those values and compete in the market some “conservatives” are arguing for legislation or utilizing litigation to bully the marketplace of ideas into giving them a louder microphone. In fact, part of the purpose behind creating the liability immunity (known as Section 230) for such services was the principle that a variety of platforms would emerge with different standards and new and diverse communities could be created and evolve to serve different audiences.

A similar idea of a need for equal content was previously used by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and known as “the fairness doctrine”. This doctrine required equal access for groups or individuals wanting to express opposing views on public issues. In the 1980s Reagan era Republicans led the charge against this doctrine arguing that it violated broadcasters’ First Amendment rights and actually went against the public interest. In fact, many have pointed out that the removal of the fairness doctrine is what allowed conservative talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh to become major political forces.  In the 2000s, when liberals suggested bringing back the fairness doctrine, conservatives were aghast and viewed it was an attack on conservative talk radio.  Even now, President Trump has used social media as a way to deliver messaging and set his political agenda in a way that has never been done before. If anything, there are lower barriers to creating a new medium on the Internet than there are on the TV or radio airwaves. As a 2016 National Review article states if conservatives are concerned with how they are being treated by existing platforms, “The goal should not be to create neutral spaces; it should be to create non-neutral spaces more attractive than existing non-neutral spaces.” In other words rather than complaining that the odds are against them and demanding “equal time”, conservatives should try to compete by building more attractive platforms that promote the content moderation ideals they believe are best. But perhaps, the problem is they realize that ultimately difficult or unpopular content moderation decisions must be faced by any platform.

Content moderation is no easy task. Even for small groups differing beliefs can quickly result in grey areas that require difficult calls by an intermediary. For social media and other Internet intermediaries, when dealing with such issue on a scale of millions and a global diversity of what is and isn’t acceptable, content moderation becomes exponentially complicated. It is unsurprising that a rate of human and machine learning errors exist in making such decisions. AI might seem like a simple solution but such filters aren’t aware of the context in many cases. For example, a Motherboard article recently pointed out the difficulty that those with last names like Weiner and Butts face when trying to register for accounts on websites with AI filters to prevent offensive language. Leaving the task of content moderation to humans is both incredibly difficult on the moderators and may result in inconsistent results due to the large volume of content that must be moderated and differing interpretations of community standards. As Jason Koebler and Joseph Cox point out in their Motherboard article on the challenge of content moderation on a global scale that Facebook is dealing with, “If you take a single case, and then think of how many more like it exist across the globe in countries that Facebook has even less historical context for, simple rules have higher and higher chances of unwanted outcomes.” It is quite clear that if we as a society can’t decide on our own definitions of things like hate speech or bullying in many cases, how we can expect a third party public or private to make such decision in a way that satisfies every perspective?

The Internet has helped the world truly create a marketplace of ideas. The barriers to entry are rather low and the medium is constantly evolving. Because of social media and the Internet more generally conservative voices are able to reach a wider audience than before. Conservatives should be careful what they wish for with calls for “fairness,” because such power could actually prevent future innovation or new platforms and extend the status quo instead.

Previous post:

Next post: