If They Wanted To, They Would
Congress tries to paint tech CEOs as the bad guys instead of taking responsibility for a struggling country.
If this week has shown us anything, it’s that Congress can get things done when they really want to. Sadly, the needs of Americans seem never to make it to the top of their to-do list.
We started the week with the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice appointee Amy Coney Barrett. Even with a fiercely divided government, her appointment and confirmation were executed quickly. Proof that even controversial decisions can be made when the election is so close. Time is ticking, and action must be taken.
Today, set the stage for a similar Congressional move. With the election days away and many already casting their ballots in person or by mail, we see tech CEOs Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and Sundar Pichai answer questions about their censorship guidelines, misinformation, political leanings, and how they hold democracy in their hands. These tech giants are set to explain why they have added fact check beacons on tweets or the removal of content. In the war on democracy, is social solely to blame?
But today’s hearing is a shining example of what happens when you accuse others of what you are guilty of. Elected officials tied to a political party and the ideologies therein condemn tech companies' actions assuming they are also biased.
Influencing Elections in a Post Cambridge Analytica World
The message for today was clear. Don’t censor MY party. While Facebook has yet to truly be held responsible for Cambridge Analytica and their impact on the 2016 election and Brexit, today, Senator Ted Cruz set his sights on Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, for his line of questioning. When asked if Twitter and its action had the power to influence the election, Cruz was appalled that Jack said no. Recalling the recent action to remove the New York Post article about Hunter Biden, Cruz was vehement that this action was specifically a political move with the social media platform acting like a Democrat Super PAC.
Instead of questioning Facebook or Google during his time, Cruz continued to focus on Twitter's role. With its reach, removing content from news agencies, argued Cruz, means they have the ability to influence the news users read.
Many questions pertain to the POV of these tech platforms using their sizable user base and reach to moderate content and thus play a role in what is seen, or as publishers would call it: curation. While Facebook is applauded for removing QAnon groups and Holocaust deniers, Twitter is questioned for removing content that hurt the Democrats. Which is it? You applaud the removal of the content you don’t like, but you shake your fist in anger when content you want to go viral is squashed. Congratulations to Facebook for throwing a moderation Hail Mary pass that clearly won over some of the committee members today. Too little too late for most, but it definitely saved them from the harsher treatment leveled at the other tech CEOs.
We need to ask — are these platforms simply publishers? Are they (as they were asked) referees of the democracy? But first, let’s see if we can get this group to all agree to the definition of censorship; that, my friends, is a minefield. If you wanted a dangerous drinking game today, you had it with every use of the words “censorship” or “algorithm.”
Instead of Congress learning from the last election and realizing that bad agents and candidates can weaponize these platforms as data tools to target their audience, they instead held these Congressional testimonies to do one thing — plant seeds. Congress, not happy to own up to years of ignoring their constituents and failing to keep their promises, sets up one specific thing to reap after the election. If their party loses, it’s because of these platforms. If democracy is threatened, it’s because of these platforms.
Not the politicians lying and spreading misinformation. Not the politicians who are using tools like Facebook to target their audience with attack ads and propaganda. Not the politicians sending SMS campaigns to your phone when you know for a fact that you never gave your consent.
Today’s circus is a reminder that the people who want to manipulate the system don’t want to be negatively impacted by it themselves. Social is a tool, the key to their reelection campaign until it isn’t.
When Wolves Want to Guard the Henhouse
Today’s congressional hearing and those of the past could carve a path for these tech giants to find opportunities to connect and not divide, to foster discourse instead of discord. Instead, it becomes more and more blatant that this isn’t about improving these platforms. It’s a call to arms that the government and its officials can’t use them unchecked. It isn’t about regulation. It’s about the government not wanting to be held to the same terms of service as the rest of us.
And yet, these are the people who want to decide what regulation is needed and what it looks like.
These are the last people who should be deciding how these platforms are regulated. Handing them the keys doesn’t solve the problem. It creates new ones. It makes them the masters of these platforms and leads to the slippery slope of them being the ones who call the shots and determine misinformation or lies. They will dictate what is considered the truth.
That should scare you.
Additionally, there is another elephant in the room—a clear lack of knowledge about how these platforms actually work. I’m sorry, but saying algorithm repeatedly doesn’t mean you know what it means or how it works. I continue to be shocked by each hearing and the basic level of knowledge when questioning the CEOs. The committee members clearly do not take the time to understand these platforms, yet they feel entitled to rule over it.
What Should Regulation Look Like
It should go without saying that those in a position to recommend and execute regulation measures should have a strong understanding of how the platforms work, the core issues with each, and the potential ramifications when these issues are not handled in a timely and effective manner.
I work in social and have spent the past few years living and breathing it. I believe regulation is necessary, however, I do not trust or believe that Congress is in a position to do that job. One of the committee members today spoke about the need for litigation regarding content. Lawsuits will not fix the issues within these platforms. Lawsuits will not create better behavior. Lawsuits just make money for lawyers. These companies have their own legal department. They’re ready.
This is not the answer.
There are core issues at play that need to be addressed and resolved to truly take a positive step for tech and its integration into our everyday lives. Here is a shortlist of clear needs.
- Make terms of service (TOS) apply to everyone, regardless of status
- Have clear guidelines as to what behavior and content will get your posts flagged, removed, or your account suspended
- Have all accounts verified with their name. This will inhibit some bad agents from spreading misinformation or communicating threats as their content will be directly tied to their identity. This is a major step in holding users accountable for their content
- Remove the ability to do political ads. If you really want social not to be able to influence elections, then you shouldn’t allow politicians to pay for reach and access to users based on email lists, persona targeting, and other behaviors
2020 is the year we should have been able to come together for our country, but it is the year we have cemented our polarized political system. Suits focused on pointing the finger at other players in the game, refusing to own up to their lack of action in a crisis. Those who have watched as millions have lost jobs, over 200,000 have lost something infinitely more dear, all to be lost in the shuffle of party agendas.
When you vote, no matter who you vote for, remember that our government could have spent their time determining what stimulus packages our nation’s families, workers, children, and essential workers need in the last few weeks leading up to the election. They could have determined the latest hot spots in the COVID-19 resurgence and provide any necessary aid. They could have worked to help the thousands of small businesses shutting their doors for the last time.
Instead, they showed you what was important to them.
If they wanted to help you in the middle of a pandemic, they would have. If they wanted to be servants for the people who elected them, they would have.