by Michael Liss
The Machine has me in its tentacles. Some algorithm thinks I really want to buy classical sheet music, and it is not going to be discouraged. Another (or, perhaps it is the same) insists that now is the time to invest in toner cartridges, running shoes, dress shirts, and incredibly expensive real estate.
Swinging over to the relative peace and quiet of my email box, I find an extraordinary number of politicians bidding against one another for my attention. It’s a little like Christmas come early: “Now, Stringer, now, Helen, now Andrew and Adams! On, Williams on, Loree! on, Kallos and Weprin!” Every single one of them vibrates with intensity, assuring me that he or she is ready to serve me, my family, my community, and the world. Oh, and, by the way, brother, can I spare a dime?
I need my dimes right now. I’m not moving to a deluxe apartment in the sky, and I’ll buy more dress shirts when the world gets back to normal and I ditch this pandemic-related beard. So, back to Schirmer’s Selected Piano Masterpieces (Intermediate Level). I know my sin. My daughter and I were talking about the accompaniment in Schubert’s Lieder and I (foolishly, without going into a private viewing mode) did a quick search. This was more than two weeks ago, and The Machine will keep at me until it is convinced I absolutely, positively, won’t give in. Machine, if you are reading (and I know you must be), please trust me, I can’t play the piano, and I definitely can’t sing. I’d be happy to post something to YouTube to prove it. Or ask my friends to confirm—after all, you know who they are.
I invited this. I knew I wasn’t in a secure area; I wanted a quick answer to something; I browsed; and, in doing so, reaped the whirlwind. A good friend who works in tech reminds me, regularly, that the use of social media and search engines tag me, and free access to them is not free when I’m the product. I just pay the price when I hear from folks who sell Schubert and toner and footwear.
I am not alone. Short of heading to Walden Pond and completely unplugging (leaving one’s phone behind, of course) we all live with some version of the same Machine. Do we really have a choice? Not so long as some of the Titans of Tech keep a chokehold on the market and on the legislation regulating the market. You see politicians scurrying about, holding hearings, voicing outrage, and generally doing the ineffectual but noisy things they are famous for, but you don’t see them going after the core of the problem—the immense profitability that springs from knowing things like my (now regrettable) interest in Schubert. There’s just too much money in it, and, unlike some of our brethren in Europe, many of whom are philosophizing over the societal costs (see this thoughtful piece in 3Q), we tend to be situationally pro-free-market here, and fond of putting dollars over social harmony.
So, what are our elected leaders doing? Mostly worrying about themselves and looking for grievances. They know places like Facebook aren’t just about selling consumer goods, they are also about selling ideas and causes, and creating and sustaining access points to exchange them. Politicians and political parties profit from this, either literally from fundraising, or emotionally, through either inspiration or provocation.
It was inevitable that smart candidates hired smart techies to get across their message. Obama ran a very sharp digital ground game built around his message of hope and change, and that helped energize more tech-savvy younger voters. But it was truly a seminal moment when Cambridge Analytica obtained data from Facebook and, with direction from Steve Bannon, used it to test out populist and conservative messages, and identify potential voters who might be interested in them. Bannon’s linking up with former President Trump was a genius-level move that combined Cambridge Analytica’s sophistication with Trump’s unparalleled emotional connection with his base, supercharged by use of Twitter.
Trump is the embodiment of politics on steroids, and once one slugger goes to the needle, the rest will follow. Other candidates, party organizations, and issue groups did. We are now surrounded with Mini-Trumps using many of the same techniques. Democrats haven’t entirely closed their eyes to this either, and they, too, are getting more sophisticated and less cautious.
This is an extraordinarily dangerous trend because, in what has increasingly become a winner-take-all system, the morality of the means seems far less important than achieving the ends. There are a lot of lies out there, deliberately spread for their emotional impact, capturing the thoughts of whole groups—and many of those groups make their homes on places like Facebook. Some of those turn to advocating for dangerous and even lethal behavior.
One might reasonably ask why this was not foreseeable to the leadership of the social media giants. After all, what they were doing was akin to renting out their restaurant to a group of anarchists or Klan members, and providing them with a list of potential customers. In fact, we know it was foreseeable, and know there were debates inside the industry. They were buried, because the profits were just too great.
Not to be too harsh, but the horse was well out of the barn before the insurrection of January 6th. Frightened by what it had enabled (and, quite cynically, perhaps reasoning that an autocratic government’s imperiousness might be a lot worse for the bottom line), social media looked to temporary bans, de-platforming, and purging. But none of that comes without controversy, both political and philosophical.
We ought to look at this from three different vantage points: free speech implications, private property rights, and potential consequences. I can’t think of a better person to build that discussion around than one of my least favorite politicians, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO).
Many know Hawley as the young, lean guy in the good suit who raised a fist in the air to encourage the rioters to storm the Capitol on January 6th. He’s Ivy-educated, considered a political prodigy, and has his eyes firmly set on the Resolute Desk.
Following that “iconic” picture, some grandstanding, and some intensely inflammatory remarks, Hawley found himself shunned not only by some in the Senate, but also by former supporters back home, including a major financial backer. He also lost a book contract with Simon & Schuster and temporarily went silent on Twitter. The Senator was furious, headed for every conservative talk show and conference he could find, and made grievances his breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Senator Josh’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad experience is a perfect teaching example. From my perspective, it is thoroughly earned. But, when you clear away all the fire and brimstone, does he have a legitimate complaint?
To an extent, he does. He certainly should be able to exercise his First Amendment rights, and, short of calls to violence and libel, those rights are fairly broad. We don’t demand people be truthful, or honorable, much less to agree with us, to have those rights. If you are going to shut down Hawley (or any other person, no matter how fringe), you need more than just revulsion as a justification.
Where is the justification? I do not see it. We shouldn’t censor based on content, unless that content falls within some sort of public safety imperative. If Josh Hawley wants to stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shout insults about Democrats he’s got every right to do so.
Hawley frames some of his grievances in that way—that mean Leftists and their allies in the media are trying to stifle him. But when you dig a little deeper, you realize there’s an additional dynamic involved. Social media platforms are private businesses. Shouldn’t the owners/managers of businesses be permitted to choose who they serve, so long as they don’t violate anti-discrimination laws? Josh Hawley went to Harvard Law School—surely he knows that attorneys turn down clients when they don’t think it’s a good match. By the same token, shouldn’t those same businesses be permitted to decide what they display (in this case, content) just like any business can choose its stock? We wouldn’t force a bookstore to carry Hawley’s book; why should we force Twitter to transmit his Tweets?
There is an obvious answer here, which is that the tech behemoths exercise monopoly power, akin to that of many public utilities. Those utilities are required to serve any customer who wishes to use them, so long as the customer is willing to abide by basic rules. So, too, Cable broadcasters are subject to “must carry” regulations regarding local television stations. Why not extend those types of consumer protections to the social media industry?
It is an intriguing question, particularly if you favor criteria that are broadly tolerant of freedom of speech and assembly. Let’s take a leap of faith and say that both business and politicians are willing to make good-faith efforts to find solutions to prune back some of the deeply fringe and scary, while protecting access more generally. What does that look like?
If, for example, Hawley doubles down and insists that the election was stolen, Hugo Chavez is alive, and 24 million Democratic votes came from a Zombie factory in Haiti, shouldn’t he be permitted to do that? If he wants to advocate for peaceful Civil Disobedience to the Biden Administration, shouldn’t he be permitted to do that as well? The red line can’t be bizarre and divisive theories and excessive self-aggrandizement. It has to be more—words that are a potential danger to the public at large, such as those targeting an individual or a group, promoting self-harm, or inciting violence.
Of course, a platform that is completely open to whatever Josh Hawley wants to say, whenever he wants to say it, is not really what he wants, or, to put it more precisely, it’s not all that he wants. What Hawley craves is an environment in which there are no consequences for anything he says or does. He is angered that he’s been judged and feels he’s above the scrutiny being given to him. The open rejections by his previous supporters sting, and the loss of the Simon & Schuster contract is a loss of face. He is defiant, getting louder, more obnoxious, more disruptive, but he’s too smart not to realize he’s been diminished in the public eye. Hawley may be a force for decades; he may even, in this insanely partisan environment, become President, but he’s never going to recover the central promise of his early years. He’s shown himself, and it’s not pretty. The market for his product has been radically altered.
This is where the Hawley experience is so valuable to us—the idea that exercising freedoms that are Constitutionally guaranteed may still lead to consequences. Mike Lindell, the “My Pillow” guy, complained recently that he’s lost $65 million in business. Putting aside the pun that I’m not going to cry myself to sleep over that, why should he be immune? If a business owner puts up a sign asking people to wear a mask, or not to bring a gun into his store, and he loses some customers because of it, that’s a choice he’s made, understanding the risks. It is, coincidentally, the choice I am making as well, by publishing this piece under my own name. A potential client might find it and disagree with it enough to decide not to hire me.
This result is not inherently unjust, although it may, at times, seem disproportionate. I don’t see how regulating social media platforms changes that. I also don’t think that really is the biggest problem. The amplification of anger, paranoia, and an urge to violence is. It’s eating at our civil society, and perhaps even our civilization.
Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology notes that people have been focused on the moment when the “intelligence” of machines exceeds humans. That’s not what we should be fearing: “There’s this much earlier moment when technology actually overwhelms human weaknesses.” In testimony before Congress, he asked what might be the critical question of our time: “How can we solve the world’s most urgent problems if we’ve downgraded our attention spans, downgraded our capacity for complexity and nuance, downgraded our shared truth, downgraded our beliefs into conspiracy theory thinking that we can’t construct shared agendas to solve our problems?”
Harris is right. The Machine is not only messing with our heads, but also with our glands. That red light that’s flashing on a screen up ahead isn’t just another pitch for sheet music, or shirts, or political causes. It is a “road washed out ahead” sign,.
We’d better take heed of it.