Censorship, CIA, CloutHub, Common Carrier, Content Moderation, Eugene Volokh, Facebook, Facebook Jail, Fact Checkers, FireEye, First Amendment, Frenemies, Friend Requests, Gab, GETTR, Hosting Function, Meta, MeWe, Parler, Public Square, Recommendation Function, Section 230 Immunity, Telecommunications Act of 1996, Telegram, Truth Social, Vivek Ramaswamy
I’m very happy to be off Facebook, or “Meta” as it now calls itself. The platform has become, effectively, a propaganda arm of governments, and one that appears to be engaging in unconstitutional censorship. More on that below.
One year ago my profile dropped off of FB entirely. I had decided to quit in January 2021 after about 15 years. I downloaded everything from my profile and wrote a blog post called “On Quitting Facebook”. It was my last entry there, so that’s really when I quit, but it took a month before they completely deactivated me.
You have to resist the temptation to go back during that interim month or it starts all over again — a new interim period, that is — when you finally decide to get out. I knew immediately that I loved being free of it, so that part was easy. My feelings haven’t changed a bit.
I no longer have to put up with the propaganda that FB prioritizes nor the “demoted post” phenomenon. None of my posts had actually been blocked outright, but I knew “Facebook jail” was happening to users with increasing frequency, as well as post blocking and “red flags” authorized by politically-motivated FB “fact checkers”.
Free of FB, I no longer have to put up with various “frenemies” I’d somehow collected. And quitting FB allowed me to reclaim precious time I’d been wasting on an obsession that one would think avoidable: scrolling through my news feed, sometimes more than once a day, to view an assortment of photos of meals, puppies, and peoples’ lovely feet propped-up in “relax mode”, plus huge dollops of left-wing political and economic BS, often delivered with snark. But of course the lefty BS is almost everywhere in media.
There was one other disturbing anomoly on FB that became more frequent for me: friend requests from exceptionally gruesome-looking characters. I think they were fake requests, but I had tight security on my profile, so the source and motive is anyone’s guess. The increasing frequency led me to wonder whether someone had information about me, which my security settings should not have allowed. That would have meant it was partly an “inside job” on FB, perhaps designed to intimidate me in one way or another. I have no idea, but I don’t miss those requests.
So there’s a lot to like about quitting FB! It certainly brought a few disappointments and challenges. Unfortunately, I did lose touch with some good people. In what follows I elaborate on certain legal ramifications of FB’s poor conduct in hosting users both privately and within what’s purported to serve as a “public square”; the social media frustrations I’ve experienced since quitting; and my impressions of a few other platforms.
FB is a private company, so the usual libertarian position is that it can run its platform any way it wants. It is therefore no business of the government’s whether FB moderates content, bans certain users, or takes editorial positions. However, FB benefits from immunity to prosecution under Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was traditionally intended for common carriers like telephone companies. That means they can’t be held liable for anything a third party might say on their network. Say what you want on the phone, because liability-free carriers shouldn’t care. FB and other social media platforms receive this same protection. But should they?
While we can think of FB as a kind of modern public square, in some respects it looks more like a common carrier. By that I mean much of the communication that takes place on the platform is voluntary and between private contacts, or groups of “friends”. The voluntary nature of these connections is a key aspect of what Eugene Volokh calls the “hosting function”. No one is forced to look at what you post. Yet FB makes a habit of moderating the content of those posts and conversations and still receives immunity under Section 230.
In other respects, FB does resemble a public square. Content posted by one party can be shared by each contact with their own network of friends, and thus can “go viral”. But if FB moderates content, censors users, or takes political positions of its own via the “recommendation function” often exercised by social media platforms, then it is not acting purely as a public square. Indeed, in that case it is more like a publisher, which otherwise would not be immune from lawsuits.
The case against FB is even stronger than that, however. It has acted as a de facto agent of the government in several respects. A recent FOIA request has revealed a White House email showing:
“… Facebook, Merck, and the CDC Foundation, whose corporate partners includes Pfizer, have formed an alliance ‘to use social media and digital platforms to build confidence in and drive uptake of vaccines.’”
FB has also acted to delete user accounts at the behest of the U.S. and Israeli governments. And FB has partnered with a security firm called FireEye, which is funded by the CIA. There are other areas of “cooperation” between entities performing government-funded activities described at the last link.
The topic of social media giants censoring speech on behalf of the U.S. and other governments has been discussed by Vivek Ramiswamy, who notes the obvious breach of constitutional rights that it represents. It’s fine for a private firm to regulate speech on its own premises, but conducting censorship at the behest of government is equivalent to censorship by government and a flat out a violation of the First Amendment.
Moreover, FB has had the audacity to propose government “oversight” in its effort to moderate content. What, in the name of regulatory capture, could go wrong? I’d say the whole thing is Orwellian, but perhaps no more than what we’ve already seen. The best policy response, as Volokh suggests, might be to separate the hosting and conversation functions of social media from the recommendation function. The former can be treated as “common carrier” functions for the purpose of applying Section 230, with an obligation for non-discrimination and minimal content moderation, while the latter function would receive no immunity under Section 230.
My Post-FB Social Media Escapades
My blog lost a lot of readership when I quit FB. Last spring, however, I began a roughly five-month stint as a contributing blogger on a site that brought a jump in my readership. Unfortunately, it became clear, over time, that it was largely an audience unwilling to entertain more objective and sometimes technical considerations. I also became disillusioned after finding myself writing posts to debunk certain conspiratorial fantasies of other contributing bloggers on the site. I didn’t want to be associated with those writers, so I cut ties. My readership crashed again, but I’m not sure I lost many high-quality readers in that instance.
I joined various “free speech” social media platforms: first Parler (until it was taken down by Amazon, and I haven’t been back), and I’d been on MeWe, but then Gab, CloutHub, GETTR, and Telegram. MeWe, Gab, and CloutHub sponsor groups with shared interests, and I’ve made it a point to join Libertarian groups when I can find them. Those groups are not very active on CloutHub. GETTR feels a bit more like Twitter to me, and there are no group pages. Telegram is a secure messaging app with extra features. I just started a so-called “channel” there to which I can post my content. Users can view and subscribe to my channel if they wish, but I have to cross-post to other channels to find them. We’ll see how it goes, but there are a lot of people who LOVE Telegram!
A few friends from my FB days followed me to one or two of the “free speech” platforms, but only one of them seems to have maintained any presence there. Most of them became entirely inactive from what I can tell. I know some went back to FB, upon which so many people are dependent. Sometimes that’s for business reasons, which is both understandable and regrettable. Anyway, at least one of my former FB connections is still cross-posting some of my articles to FB, which is fine and I truly appreciate it.
Like FB, the alternative platforms I’ve tried are dominated by meme warriors. While a few trolls lurk there, MeWe, Gab, and CloutHub are very much echo chambers. But at least dissident voices have a place where they aren’t censored! In an ideal world we’d have diversity of thought and civility.
I’ve grown kind of numb to all the memes. I tend to scroll right past them in search of meatier fare. Memes tend to over-simplify complex issues and appeal to mood affiliations. They generally offer zero evidence in support of their messages. Even worse is their impact on attention span. It’s extremely difficult to get users to read anything longer than a meme blurb. In fact, there are people who notice the headlines on my posts and make immediate comments on that basis, as if I’m posting memes! But again, FB is very much a hall of memes, so I don’t mean to imply that there’s been any change for me in that respect … I just like to bitch about memes!
There are a few anti-semites on some of the “free-speech” sites, Gab in particular. In fact, Gab is thoroughly dominated by the religious right, so the anti-semitism is all the more striking. Excepting the Jew haters, whom I can block, I respect the religious right, and our interests are often aligned. However, a steady diet of posts with Christianity as an emphasis makes Gab less than ideal for me. Besides, every time I click on the Gab app it takes like 15 seconds to load on my phone!
I joined MeWe well before I quit FB. Nevertheless, I’ve had trouble getting traction there and I’m thinking of dropping out just to simplify my life. So far, CloutHub seems a little better in terms of generating visits to my blog.
It’s hard for a small-time blogger like me to get much notice on GETTR. There are some well-known conservative personalities there, so there are some decently informative posts. I have not been very active on Telegram, but that might change, as I said above.
I’ve been on LinkedIn for many years, but I’ve only recently decided to begin posting my articles there. I’ve lost a handful of connections as a result! That’s okay. As I like to say, eventually I’ll piss everyone off! I do get some views from LinkedIn, but users who might agree with my point of view are often too chickenshit to say so. That’s more understandable on a platform oriented toward career and professional contacts. However, I think the perception of social pressure is not very much different than the intimidation some people feel on FB.
I’ve considered joining the Truth Social platform, Donald Trump’s foray into social media. It’s billed as a “big tent”, but it will be another echo chamber, I’m sure. It’s also been a technical mess so far (not unique among new apps in that respect). I’m no Trump hater by any means, but any post that might be critical of him is almost certain to attract some hate on Truth Social (the link no is satire, btw). That’s not censorship per se, but TS might not be a great place for some of my posts.
No Going Back
Maybe the last section above was more self-assessment than anything else. As a personal decision, quitting FB was unequivocally positive for me. It hurt my blog readership, but I still hope to gain momentum on other platforms and to promote Sacred Cow Chips by placing links on other sites. In any case, I blog for myself as much as anyone else, just because I enjoy writing, thinking about issues, and occasionally doing a “deep dive” to research an issue.
The censorship occurring on the big social media platforms is simply unacceptable, and I wish more people would rise-up against it. I experienced some schadenfreude when I saw that Meta’s (Facebook’s) financials were a disappointment last quarter. The number of active users declined ever so slightly, but that was a first for FB. One can only hope it’s a trend in the making. And see this, though it might be a bit over-optimistic. Damn the censorship!