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Hub Dialogue: How to stop worrying about the effects of social media

Podcast & Video

In this Hub Dialogue, The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer speaks to Robby Soave, who is the author of Tech Panic: Why We Shouldn’t Fear Facebook and the Future.

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

Sean Speer

Today’s Hub Dialogue is with Robby Soave who is a senior writer at Reason Magazine and author of the new book, Tech Panic: Why we Shouldn’t Fear Facebook and the Future.

Robby’s thoughtful research and writing on social media and technology in recent years has represented a direct challenge to the growing bi-partisan consensus in favour of targeting social media companies like Facebook through new rules and regulations.

These are big questions and we’re grateful to have Robby join us to discuss them. Thanks for speaking with us, Robby, and congratulations on the launch of your book.

Robby Soave

Thank you. It’s my pleasure.

Sean Speer

The main political story out of Washington for most of this century has been one of political polarization, division, and so-called “gridlock.” Yet when it comes to regulating Silicon Valley, there’s an emerging consensus that crosses party lines. How do you explain the Left-Right consensus on regulating Big Tech when the American political class can’t seem to agree on much of anything else?

Robby Soave

It’s been pretty entertaining to say the least to watch this consensus develop. There’s certainly a growing consensus that there are lot of problems with social media and it’s the government’s role to fix them. Interestingly, though, while there’s a consensus that something needs to be done about social media in particular and big tech in general, the consensus quickly breaks down and goes in different directions. The Left and the Right don’t even agree what the problems are, so it puts the tech companies in a very difficult position to some extent.

Because broadly speaking, if we’re talking about political speech and censorship on social media, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, the right-wing conservatives are pumped. The Trump version of the Republican Party, for instance, thinks there is too much censoring of information or too much moderating of right-wing content on the part of social media companies. The idea here is that these companies and their employees are ideologically biased against the Republican Party and that this bias is harming free expression and democracy.

Democrats, progressives, and their allies in the mainstream media, by contrast, are concerned about the opposite problem: namely, they think that there is not nearly enough content moderation happening on these various social media platforms. According to this perspective, there’s too little censorship occurring and the platforms ought to take down more content. And if social media streams are not going to do it willingly, then government ought to force them to take down more content.

Frankly, even if you’re not broadly sympathetic to the tech companies or if you’re not as sympathetic to them as I am, I think everyone has to recognize that they’re in an extremely difficult position. You have these two political factions who both want to punish you, but they want to do it for opposite reasons. They’re very contradictory concerns, and there’s no way for the tech companies to satisfy all of them.

So, you have this recurring thing happening where Mark Zuckerberg [Facebook], Jack Dorsey [Twitter] and Sundar Pichai [Google] are being taken before Congress every few weeks or a few months to be screamed at for preferencing one side, and then the other side will scream at them for doing the opposite of that. It’s a very hard – and arguably unsustainable – position for them to be in.

Both sides agree that something must be done. So, if they came together, they’d have ample numbers to pass new laws. The problem is it would be to do something to punish these companies, but clearly not in a way that satisfies all of these problems because their respective problems are in direct tension.

Sean Speer

The typical approach to evaluating competition in the modern economy is what’s sometimes described as “consumer welfare”, which tends to be assessed according to prices (and price changes) in the market. The challenge here of course is that many of the companies in your book don’t charge prices to consumers. Do you think our conception of market competition needs to change? And, if so, do you think that under a new or different understanding of competition, there’s an argument that companies like Facebook and Google are indeed monopolies?

Robby Soave

If you redefine monopoly to mean something other than what it has meant for the last 100 years, in terms of harm to the consumer, they could absolutely qualify under some different definition. I think it is hard to argue though in good faith that they qualify under the existing anti-trust understandings.

That keeps coming up when legal actions are pursued with the Federal Trade Commission, which recently dismissed a case against these companies on that basis. Because you don’t really have the harm to the consumer. Facebook is not charging you for its product. It is a repository of pictures that you don’t pay for.

I think it’s important to understand philosophically where concerns about monopoly come from. The concern is that you just have one giant company, say an oil company, where it’s the only company that has all the oil and it’s not competing in the marketplace where there’s some other companies that can also sell oil. So, it has this very important product that it has a monopoly on, and then it because it’s not threatened by competition, it can theoretically hugely raise the price of this product that we all need and in turn really punish consumers. This is the basic premise of the consumer welfare concerns inherent in competition law.

That’s harder to happen with the kind of product that tech companies generally have because it’s not tangible as we typically understand it. It’s much more ephemeral. Facebook isn’t using its market power to drive up consumer prices. It offers its product to most of its audience for free. Now, both Google and Facebook are very important for advertising for political ads, so there’s all these other services that these companies fulfill. It’s another role they play in the economy and political life, that, in some cases, their power might be more threatening, but it doesn’t really threaten the consumer. They are certainly threats to each other.

Think about Parler, a right-wing microblogging and social networking service, was a social media site challenger and it gets taken out of the App Store in this dubious way. I say dubious, because while there was a lot of concerning content on that platform, there was also very concerning content on Facebook, and they didn’t take Facebook out of the App Store. So, I can see how it looked to an outsider. It seems inherently unfair and monopolistic. It doesn’t matter though that it’s unfair according to our current understanding of the law.

So, yes, you could change it to have some different understanding of monopoly. My wariness with that is, I think, there’s a lot of failure to imagine that things could ever be different. If you look at the rich history of the internet, it is a history of seemingly dominant websites, companies or platforms quickly collapsing when something else comes along. I just read the other day that Tiktok is now being watched at a greater volume than YouTube. We thought YouTube is this completely dominant video platform as recently as last week.

There are so many similar stories in the modern history of the internet. Yahoo crashes and burns when I was a younger person just entering the world of social media. AOL Instant Messenger and Myspace were these seemingly very powerful platforms that are now just gone. I mean, they’re still there, but no one uses them and the investment is gone.

Facebook looks like its dominating position is decreasing. Probably to an even greater extent, you can say this of Google search engine. These companies haven’t been outcompeted yet but let’s give it some time. Maybe you eventually have to restructure monopoly laws to deal with this, but it’s just not evident to me. It’s not clear to me that the situation is so dire that you need a legal intervention.

Sean Speer

One of the more compelling arguments against amending section 230 or breaking up the big tech companies is that the loss of scale may impede their ability to compete with Chinese-based firms, and we could inadvertently hand control of the internet over to the Chinese Communist Party. What do you think about this concern? Is it legitimate? And if so, why aren’t more American policymakers thinking about it when they’re arguing for disrupting the size and scope of these different companies?

Robby Soave

The willingness to tinker or get rid of section 230, on the part of both Republicans and Democrats, is actually kind of horrifying. Important legislators on both sides of the political aisle are very interested in doing this, and it alarms me that they haven’t thought through the consequences. Or if they have, they just don’t care. This isn’t how we should be dealing with these big, fundamental questions.

Because doing anything to section 230 risks destroying the internet as we know it and that would be a bad thing for dialogue, for communication, for interacting with each other. Conservatives especially have this very misguided idea that the tech platforms are bad and unfair to conservative speech. And since section 230 is a good thing for tech platforms, they think they should get back at tech platforms by taking it away.

The obvious result of taking away section 230 would be far less conservative speech online, or any provocative or dissident speech that is not very mainstream media friendly. If you impose much deeper liability burdens on social media sites, a variety of things might or could happen, but the most likely thing is that they would just allow much less speech that could potentially put them in some risk of incurring fees. So, it would be like shooting down every media that doesn’t receive mainstream approval. It’s essentially targeting conservative media and ideas.

It’s crazy that’s the conservatives want to do this. Facebook is this very important platform for the right, Breitbart, Fox News, Daily Wire, and for people like Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro. This is a platform that delivers a lot of page views for right-leaning content and ideas. I agree that some of the content moderation decisions that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have taken have harmed right-wing users and I think some of those decisions were certainly wrong, and I’ve criticized them. And it’s fair for everyone to criticize them. But making these companies face greater liability burdens would just fail. It would backfire spectacularly.

There was recently a court decision in Australia that, as a user, you could be held liable for defamatory comments made under Facebook posts. We can see in real-time what that will do. That will create a great chilling of speech: a great silencing that will doubtless occur if you substantially alter section 230.

The national security concerns that you raise are not something that I’ve thought about at great length. But I’d have to imagine that companies are more inclined to let you say what you want and do what you want in America relative to China. And so, by yanking 230, they’d be more inclined to only want to say things or only let anyone say things that are not going to make the government upset, which is more along the Chinese model. Already, the White House is trying to pressure social media sites on what shouldn’t be allowed to discuss with respect to the pandemic. But again, that would get worse in an environment without section 230 and its incentives to companies to broadly give us free speech and public square experience that we all seem to want.

Sean Speer

One of the common critiques of social media platforms is that they contribute to the spread of vitriol, disinformation and conspiracy theories. We’ve certainly seen this in the context of a recent election campaign in Canada and of course the pandemic. Do you think social media is the primary culprit behind our polarization and division? Or are these issues a manifestation of deeper cultural and political trends?

Robby Soave

I think there’s no doubt that social media makes it easier to spread misinformation, lies, conspiracy theories, and information that is not correct. You can’t argue otherwise. But social media also makes it easier to spread all sorts of information. So theoretically, at least, and I think very much in practice, it can spread true information. There’s just more information out there than ever before, and it is easier than ever to find different ways to communicate, and to engage with knowledge and ideas. That process is messy, because not everything everyone says is right, good, kind, or enjoyable to consume. But I think it is better. I would argue it is better for the user experience, for our world, and for our public of discussion to not have the guardrails on the conversation.

If you want to go back 50 years, most of the information that you’re now interacting with was just coming from your local newspaper, or a large national newspaper, or even a handful of major television news networks that had a very narrow range of views that they were going to express and allowed to be expressed. The mainstream media institutions don’t have that control anymore, and I think they really resent losing that control. It has not been lost on me that the class of people who seem to want to regulate tech companies out of existence the most belong to the mainstream media, including journalists and other professionals from the existing traditional media that quite rightly see social media as a rival that has harmed their ability to keep the conversation on their terms.

But that’s hardly a case for government action. The truth is a lot of the bad public policy decisions were also produced in the past which emerged from the mainstream media-friendly environment where they were just in charge of the conversation. I think it is healthy for democracy, for society, and for the innovation of ideas, to broaden the scope of the conversation. It will not always be pleasant, and it certainly won’t always be right, and we can talk about ways to strategize, and to reduce misinformation that doesn’t risk compromising good information. But a lot of what is considered misinformation is wielded very dishonestly now, especially by the mainstream media.

At the behest of the government, you were not allowed on Facebook, until recently, to question the origins of COVID-19 and the theory that it could have emerged from a lab. That was in Facebook’s terms of service and they would take down any of that content on the site. They were doing that because mainstream media journalists, and to some extent, even the people in the government, said that was misinformation and we needed to suppress that kind of content. They don’t have that policy anymore, because now enough people in the media and some from the government have admitted that theory seems more plausible – very much not substantiated, but it’s more plausible than it seemed before. So now, we are allowed to discuss it. That model of wanting to rigorously police misinformation is not always the most effective.

Think about the things people consider misinformation that occasionally turned out to be true. Again, that is not to say that conspiracy theories are always right. But we have to be more aware. I mean, this is a classic defense of free speech, right? This is why our First Amendment gives such robust power. It empowers people to express something that might be wrong or might be controversial. Social media companies are not bound to follow the First Amendment, but they seem to be encouraging that same kind of terms for the conversation and I think is actually beneficial. There are various schemes to tweak liability protections or change the size of the companies. Yet there are major downsides here. This environment is an improvement over the old environment and could indeed get worse if we made it that way.

Sean Speer

Peter Thiel famously said of the rise of tech companies that “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” To what extent do you think that the attention in Washington and the criticism of social media platforms is, in some ways, a reflection of the relative stagnation in other parts of the economy? Does this part of the American economy have a target on its back precisely because it’s the most dynamic and innovative?

Robby Soave

Peter Thiel is obviously a brilliant person, so, I’m very hesitant to say that I think he’s wrong. Obviously, flying cars would be a much more impressive innovation, but let’s not knock the 140 characters. It is easier for me to get in touch with anyone on the planet instantly than ever before in human history. And that’s not a trivial thing. Even to engage in the public debate, I would write a letter by candlelight, and then mail it a century ago. And more recently, when I was young, if you wanted to interact with a columnist in a magazine, you would have to send a letter to the editor. Now, you can just tag that person and harass them more immediately. I’m in constant conversation now with all people I’ve never even met. I don’t know what they look like, and yet it’s enjoyable for me. If I didn’t want to do that, I could just log off.

There’s a tendency to romanticize the past, to say things were always better back in the day. Yes, there wasn’t online harassment before we had the internet, but we also have a lot of good. The internet also gives us a lot of good things in the innovation of the communication space. They are really great because we’re social animals, and we like talking to people and interacting with them. I mean, can you imagine going through this pandemic without social media? It was horrible and the thing we had to do to control the spread of the virus for a year or so was to resist the temptation to do the most human thing, which is to socialize with other people. We were told to forego that as much as possible, for as long as possible until we had the vaccines. Social media made it a lot more bearable, because you can engage in socialization through social media, through some of the new things that arose during the pandemic like Zoom or Clubhouse. So, I’m very glad that we had social media to help us get through this horrible time.

Regarding the 140 characters, if it’s not an important thing to you or you don’t like it, don’t use it. None of these things are compulsory. People can certainly find enrichment and should find joy outside of social media. But let’s not pretend that these aren’t actually really cool inventions that have aided communication and socialization in some very important ways, especially during a year where that was prevented to do in person. Doing it without the devices was literally forbidden due to the realities we were faced with.

Sean Speer

Well, thank you, Robby, for your insights today based on your new book, Tech Panic: Why We Shouldn’t Fear Facebook and the Future.

Your thinking and writing is contributing to an important conversation about the relationship between social media and our economies, society and politics. I’m sure our readers will find the book as interesting as I’ve found today’s conversation. Thank you very much.

Robby Soave

My pleasure. Thank you.