The latest push to regulate Facebook isn't about protecting kids

Drew Angerer/Pool via AP

You wouldn’t know it from most of the news coverage but the claim that Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites are doing grave harm to people, especially children, may not be true. In fact, it’s possible that part of the pushback has more in common with moral panics of previous ages, like the fear that rock music or video games or Dungeons & Dragons were corrupting the young.

But there’s no doubt that Democrats are on a crusade to save the world from Facebook and today a bunch of new articles were published about leaked documents from inside the company. The documents came from whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen. Axios published a piece this morning rounding-up what all of these news outlets were saying about the so-called Facebook Papers.

A new report from Casey Newton published by The Verge finds that Facebook used an opaque “tier system” to protect users in some countries, but not others…

A Washington Post report suggests that in an effort to grow overseas, CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally made the decision to censor anti-government dissidents in Vietnam.

The New York Times writes that while Facebook discussed hiding its popular “Like” button to alleviate pressure on users, it ultimately decided not to do so in an effort to preserve user engagement…

…collectively the reports paint a picture of Facebook as a brutish corporate actor that prioritizes its business over safety.

Do the leaked documents condemn the company? Well, not necessarily. Reason’s Robby Soave said they look more like a nothingburger.

If this is the best The New York Times, the Associated Press, etc., could do, then the Facebook Papers are a nothingburger.

As when Haugen first came forward—providing information that formed the basis of a series of Wall Street Journal reports—the real takeaway is that Facebook has been struggling to attract the young users it wants, faces robust competition, and generates apoplectic denunciation from mainstream journalists mostly because they resent the social media giant for shaking up the news industry.

And some of the specific complaints require a bit more thought. For instance, Facebook censoring dissidents at the request of Vietnam seems like a bad thing to me but as Soave points out what is the alternative? Probably the only alternative is to stop doing business with dictatorships completely. And maybe that’s a good idea. I could be persuaded on that point, but you don’t see nearly the focus on, for instance, forcing Hollywood or the NBA to stop doing business in communist China rather than meet their demands as you do on Facebook.

As for the NY Times piece Axios mentioned, the one about doing away with the “Like” button, they left out a critical piece of the story: [emphasis added]

They examined what people would do if Facebook removed the distinct thumbs-up icon and other emoji reactions from posts on its photo-sharing app Instagram, according to company documents. The buttons had sometimes caused Instagram’s youngest users “stress and anxiety,” the researchers found, especially if posts didn’t get enough Likes from friends.

But the researchers discovered that when the Like button was hidden, users interacted less with posts and ads. At the same time, it did not alleviate teenagers’ social anxiety and young users did not share more photos, as the company thought they might, leading to a mixed bag of results.

Glenn Greenwald’s take is that the push to regulate Facebook isn’t about doing away with Facebook or even about protecting kids, it’s about putting Democrats in control of what’s on Facebook and protecting elected Democrats:

Agitating for more online censorship has been a leading priority for the Democratic Party ever since they blamed social media platforms (along with WikiLeaks, Russia, Jill Stein, James Comey, The New York Times, and Bernie Bros) for the 2016 defeat of the rightful heir to the White House throne, Hillary Clinton. And this craving for censorship has been elevated into an even more urgent priority for their corporate media allies, due to the same belief that Facebook helped elect Trump but also because free speech on social media prevents them from maintaining a stranglehold on the flow of information by allowing ordinary, uncredentialed serfs to challenge, question and dispute their decrees or build a large audience that they cannot control. Destroying alternatives to their failing platforms is thus a means of self-preservation: realizing that they cannot convince audiences to trust their work or pay attention to it, they seek instead to create captive audiences by destroying or at least controlling any competitors to their pieties.

As I have been reporting for more than a year, Democrats do not make any secret of their intent to co-opt Silicon Valley power to police political discourse and silence their enemies. Congressional Democrats have summoned the CEO’s of Google, Facebook and Twitter four times in the last year to demand they censor more political speech. At the last Congressional inquisition in March, one Democrat after the next explicitly threatened the companies with legal and regulatory reprisals if they did not immediately start censoring more.

Pew survey from August shows that Democrats now overwhelmingly support internet censorship not only by tech giants but also by the government which their party now controls. In the name of “restricting misinformation,” more than 3/4 of Democrats want tech companies “to restrict false info online, even if it limits freedom of information,” and just under 2/3 of Democrats want the U.S. Government to control that flow of information over the internet.

Here’s the Pew data he’s referring to:

Greenwald concludes, “very little of the activism and anger from the media and Washington toward these companies is designed to fracture or limit that power. It is designed, instead, to transfer that power to other authorities who can then wield it for their own interests.”

We’ve heard a lot about Republicans trying to restrict people’s ability to vote and how the end of democracy is at hand because of it. We’ve heard comparatively little criticism about Democrats trying to restrict people’s ability to share content online, though the graph above suggests that’s potentially a very significant threat.