WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY — November 4, 2019 — I have bad news. This column, for all its shortcomings, may soon be your only source of political advocacy and persuasion. Centuries of robust political debate, the heart of American democracy, are about to be killed off by a couple of mega corporations who now run our lives.
The two bad boys are Facebook and Twitter. They have just decreed what forms of political advertising can and can’t be shown to us. Facebook will take advertising no matter how false or scurrilous. Twitter won’t take any political advertising at all.
They seem to be coming at the issue from opposite directions. In fact, neither has got it figured out and both endanger the social and intellectual foundations of democracy.
On the surface, Facebook seems to have the better argument. “It’s not for us to decide what political views you should receive. You can figure out what’s real and what’s fake,” is the paraphrase of their position. It’s cloaked in traditional First Amendment rhetoric and seems to remove Facebook from the impossible task of deciding between good and bad content.
The problem is that technology has outstripped traditional notions of speech. What to do when the “speaker” is a Russian bot? What to do when computers select specific lies to send to specific populations? “Hands off” doesn’t seem to be enough when the very fabric of democratic discourse is being shredded.
Twitter chose corporate safety over debate and controversy. The party line from the Twitter CEO is that democracy “should not be compromised by money.” Really?
The absence of paid political advertising will not be mourned by many Americans. But what happens next? The same corporate logic that has pulled Twitter into institutional silence applies to non-paid political speech. Do we want the essential, but private, transmitters of public opinion silencing those who want to share political views, rather than movie reviews?
Are we really forced to choose between chaotic lies and absolute silence? And just who are Twitter and Facebook that they should be able to shape American political debate by corporate fiat?
Surely there are ways to protect political speech and identify lies. It seems like creating a visually distinctive format, or warning labels, or ending foreign-based ads, or ending bot-generated ads, or limits on targeting such ads are all worthy of inquiry. It remains unclear why Facebook and Twitter are unwilling to develop these or other new ideas before accepting mass disinformation or silence as our only options.
We need to force Twitter and Facebook to do better, even as we are uncertain as to how. The history of the past century showed the threat posed by dictators and state-run systems of lies and oppression. We have learned the lesson of those times fairly well. But we face a new kind of threat born of a witch’s brew of new technology and corporate dominance. For today’s threat we need new answers. The subtle erosion of public discourse can be as dangerous as jack-booted secret police, if we acquiesce. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “This is how the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.”
Richard Brodsky is a former state Assembly member.
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Original publication by Times-Union on November 3, 2019.