Social media is a hothouse for breeding destructive viruses of the mind, argues Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee and the creator of pioneering blog Instapundit, in his new book The Social Media Upheaval. Back at the founding of civilization, cities concentrated people geographically, resulting in viral and bacterial epidemics and plagues.
Eventually, the weak died and the strong adapted until endemic diseases mostly killed only the very young and the very old. Reynolds says we are at an analogous city-forming period with social media: “In recent years we’ve gone from an era when ideas spread comparatively slowly to one in which social media, in particular, allow them to spread like wildfire.”
Much as our ancestors no longer had physical separation to space out disastrous infections and give people’s immune systems time to recover between attacks of various sicknesses, our ability to carefully ruminate on ideas, and reject those that are stupid, is undermined by the speed with which ideas spread in the modern age. Unlike with cities and disease, Reynolds contends that social media are specifically designed to spread these viruses of the mind:
. . . social media companies use algorithms that promote posts based on ‘engagement’ – which typically means users’ emotional reactions – and ‘share’ buttons allow each user to pass them on to hundreds or thousands of friends, who can then do the same. This repeated sharing and resharing can produce a chain reaction reminiscent of a nuclear reactor with the control rods removed.
In their pure form, social media companies do not particularly care what engages users, only that users stay inside the walled garden of the social media web site for as long as possible. While there, they are analyzed to the nth degree. T
his data is then employed to sell them something or persuade them to act in some manner, or auctioned off to other entities for the same purpose. It’s as if someone made a colony or asylum inside a giant super-mall where all the customers are lepers dying of tubercular consumption—diseases that the mall gave to them to keep them shopping.
We may think the problem is confined to the gardens of social media, but not so: “In fact, the corruption of the political/intellectual class by social media is particularly serious, since their descent into thoughtless polarization can then spread to the rest of the population, even that large part that doesn’t use social media itself, through traditional channels.”
As with all arguments by analogy, the comparison eventually breaks down, and Reynolds is usually aware of this as he makes his case, although the parallels to be drawn are often too sweet to resist. The question becomes how to control the “disease”—that is, the spread of toxic emotion, mostly hatred and loathing, masquerading as thought.
One method might be to end anonymity on the internet. Reynolds argues persuasively this is tantamount to licensing speech, however, with the possibility that your license could be revoked if you upset community norms—something we shouldn’t want, and likely couldn’t accomplish constitutionally anyway. Another possibility would be to revoke Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This law was initially meant to protect “internet publishers” from libelous remarks in the comment section and the like.
“Now, however, it protects services like Facebook or Twitter from liability for effectively everything on their sites, since everything there is content provided by someone else,” says Reynolds. He doubts such regulation would be possible: “the repeal of Section 230 immunity seems highly unlikely. . . basically every major tech company, every social media company, and every traditional media company would be in opposition.”
The response of the social media giants, when forced to face the problem they have created, is to regulate what ideas can be presented via censorship of their own platforms. “The problem,” says Reynolds, “is that this censorship seems to fall much more heavily on the right than on the left, given the–extremely–left-leaning makeup of the social media companies’ workforce.” This approach is eventually going to run into a political wall the social media companies don’t seem to realize they’re headed towards.
One of Reynolds’ most interesting observations in the book is on the call for “algorithm transparency” to regulate the toxic mind viruses of social media. This seems analogous, he says, to the way we regulate addictive substances that also have beneficial uses.
“When Facebook was new, it just showed you what your friends posted, in the order they posted it, with no algorithmic jiggery-pokery. I strongly preferred that, and one fairly nonintrusive form of regulation would be to require something like that as an easy-to-activate option.” Most of us would welcome such a return to our social media childhoods. But it isn’t going to happen. “Facebook would hate this, because jiggery-pokery is their business model.”
This Brings Us to Trust Busting
Reynolds equates education and the development of conceptual thinking as the “mind virus” version of vaccines and antibiotics. Yet at Instapundit and in a previous book, Reynolds has argued that the American education establishment is in such a sorry state that this solution is unlikely at present. This leaves Reynolds’s preferred solution: Learn to ignore the humbug, both as individuals and as companies and organizations. And, for the short term, bust up the trusts.
It is here that Reynolds, like any modern tech innovator worth his salt, delivers a paradigm-shifting, disruptive, and transformative approach to dealing with Facebook, Twitter, and the other social media behemoths. What’s more, as the captains of tech industry would say, Reynolds’s solution scales! That is, the bigger the conglomerates are, the riper they are for Reynolds’ preferred change agent, the U.S. Department of Justice.
Reynolds argues that the social media giants have made it clear by deleting or blocking speech they label hate speech (which, as Reynolds has contended elsewhere, is simply free speech they don’t like) that they do not wish to act as platforms for individual political speech. “Social media companies themselves seem to regard the speech of their users as a collective good subject to their own control,” says Reynolds.
Free speech, on the other hand, is solely an individual right. It may or may not be in line with what the majority thinks is the collective good at any given time. Since individual speech is all the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution addresses, says Reynolds, the social media giants should be thought of not as special entities where First Amendment rights are in play—such as publishers, newspapers, and blogs, for instance—but as other service providers are regarded that are major components of modern life, such as utilities.
When such companies act to restrain trade, we should legally consider them in the same way railroads, the oil and gas industry, and the sugar producers were thought of in the age of Teddy Roosevelt—that is, we should consider them to be trusts. “And these new tech monsters have a one-two punch that Standard Oil lacked,” says Reynolds, “for not only do they control immense wealth and important industries, but their fields of operation—which give them enormous control over communications, including communications about politics—also give them direct political power that in many ways exceeds that of previous monopolies.”
Trusts are anti-competitive by nature. It’s built into their very reason for existing. Sometimes they are benign. But if their existence or actions result in a restraint of trade—well, there are laws about that:
Rather than focusing on the content of what individuals post on social media, regulators might better focus on breaking up these behemoths, policing anticompetitive collusion among them, and in general ensuring that their powers are not abused. This approach, rooted in antitrust law, would raise no First Amendment or free speech problems, and would address many of the most significant complaints about social media.
Back in the day, the populace had an interest in punishing restraint of trade in the case of, say, J.P. Morgan’s railroad trust or Standard Oil. Today they have an even greater interest in sanctioning anti-competitive behavior by companies such as Facebook and Twitter, for Facebook, Twitter, Google, et al. have bought even more political power than Morgan and Rockefeller ever did in their heyday.
Reynolds’ prescription is not a surprise; he has been advocating for using antitrust legislation to bust up the tech conglomerates for years at his blog and in his weekly column at USA Today. But in The Social Media Upheaval, Reynolds has for the first time laid out his full argument for doing so in his patented delightfully straightforward manner. It’s a short book, written, as Reynolds has said, to read in the length of one long airplane ride, yet Reynolds is able to pack in a great deal of food for thought.
Reynolds has a deceptively simple prose style that he’s perfected at Instapundit. There, he’s the master of the understated quip used to accompany his links to the news and opinion of the day (mostly from a conservative-libertarian slant). At first glance, a Reynolds’s remark often seems merely to display a firm grasp of the obvious. In fact, on first read, these can seem like bromides of prosaic pabulum.
But in every case, there’s an underlying irony or twist of meaning that cuts deeper. Sometimes Reynolds can be quite profound while masquerading as the village simpleton, like a blogging Diogenes in a barrel. And you ignore a longer Reynolds homily at your peril. He employs the same style for The Social Media Upheaval:
The ‘marketplace of ideas’ approach to free political speech has always relied on a wide variety of different views from a wide variety of different speakers, many of which will inevitably be wrong or even dishonest. The presumption is that, overall, truth will win out most of the time. The danger of monopoly organs like Facebook or Twitter is that they will selectively silence some of those voices and amplify others. Encouraging these tech behemoths to police ‘bad’ content only makes that more likely.
To allow the free market and a resurgent American educational establishment to one day ride to the rescue, what we need at present is a president or attorney general in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt, argues Reynolds. This should be someone who will go after the monopolies in the same spirit the monopolies are going after the rest of us: mercilessly.