President Trump wants to punish Twitter, but what will it mean if he really gets his way? Do people realize that the act of revenge could profoundly transform the internet? Does he realize the implications?

Twitter, which has long been Trump’s preferred method of public communication, put fact-checking tags on some of Trump’s recent tweets about mail-in ballots and flagged his post about “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” saying the “tweet violated the Twitter rules about glorifying violence.” This infuriated him.

As a side note, I find it really interesting that Twitter hasn’t taken action on any of Trump’s posts related to his highly libelous tweets pushing the theory that cable news commentator Joe Scarborough murdered his ex-employee when he was a congressman. The woman’s widower asked Twitter to delete them. They didn’t. I’m interested because if you say someone murdered someone else without any rock-solid evidence, arrest or court action, and you submit that opinion to me to run in our paper, it’s not running. That’s not just because it would be morally wrong to hurt the wrongly-accused. It’s just not an opinion protected by law. It’s libelous, and we could be sued for being your vehicle to pass that unfounded accusation to our audience.

But Twitter and other social media companies get a pass on exactly this — even though their reach is exponentially greater than any newspaper. They aren’t held responsible for such libel. That’s why they can’t flag Trump’s tweets on Scarborough. They would have to admit that Trump’s posts regarding the murder allegations are libelous, which could be legally dicey for them. But in flagging some of Trump’s Tweets, they have entered the editorial realm — have they not? They want it both ways.

Twitter isn’t liable for such posts because of “Section 230” of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which says online platforms are not legally responsible for what users post. Trump wants to hurt Twitter by eliminating Section 230 from the law. This would profoundly undermine Twitter’s business and Facebook’s, which are built on that exemption from accountability. I don’t think there’s a snowball’s chance of this actually happening because I actually think it would be a good move toward bringing something more decent to internet culture. I also think Trump could also find himself repeatedly flagged or banned from Twitter if this happened. It’s not happening.

Obviously, social media companies are society’s new information train tracks. They are the monopolies of the Web. They don’t have to pay news providers for the news content they use, though Facebook has made some token gestures toward some big media companies in 2019.

Social media companies don’t have to take any legal responsibility for anything spread on their tracks, though they at least courteously patrol for child porn and other human depravities of the sort. Meanwhile, they can use their vast collections of data compiled on all users and sell that to anyone who wants to target a specific audience for whatever purpose. Users are their product. This form of target advertising has torpedoed much of traditional media, such as numerous newspapers — to the dismay of some and the delight of others. (I know, I know — quit with the violin strings, small-town newspaper guy.)

Simply put, social media companies now rule the global information food chain. And their platforms actually dwarf the informational influence of individual nation states. If you have 2 billion users, then you are now a force that holds international power. So, it’s now in each nation’s interest to try and sway opinions via Facebook and Twitter because policy debates are now so influenced by fast-sweeping conspiracies and misinformation campaigns that undermine any “official” word on anything. Sober policymaking at the national level is kind of dead, isn’t it? Um, have you noticed? I would simply ask: has the internet helped or hurt us in this way?

Likewise, if you want to hurt someone in this world, then find a way to get a viral mob working for you. In fact, if you’re tech-savvy enough, you can just generate a mob of bots. You don’t even need real people. Countries once gained an advantage over others by prowess at sea or air. Now, whoever controls the internet is first in a real way. And Facebook and Twitter aren’t controlled by any state. So, though they’re American-based, they’re hardly exclusive to American control.

Hold on! I know, of course, social media is good in keeping us connected, especially during these hard times. I love looking at pictures of family and friends, though sometimes I debate whether it’s a net plus or negative in my life given the bile I read between people. It’s a mental tradeoff in a way. Right? Also, it’s not going away, nor should it. But can we make it any better, any less toxic?

Eliminating Section 230 would be a step. These internet behemoths shouldn’t be entitled to continued legal exemption from the government for what they traffic. They built their whole business model on clicks, not quality. It’s time they get held to the standard of publishers, who aren’t exempt in the same way, and realize that quality truly matters, too.

Why? Well, can you legitimately argue that Facebook isn’t a news source? Consider that Facebook and other aggregators peddle in the realm of news. They hold most all of the profits and none of the expenses of content producers. And when they decide to treat all information as equal, they have indeed made a monumental publishing decision to treat crap as gold and vice versa, which has a true societal effect. Clicks win. And clicks are not rooted in sound information gathering. Thus, journalism inevitably degrades over time as healthy information gathering can’t compete in a click market rooted in the selling of rage and high emotion. Do you see today’s gross hair clog in our information plumbing system and why so much stinks? I sure do. Remember that old saying, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Well, when it comes to media, the deepest problem is the perverse incentive structure of the media economy. In the race to eyeballs, clicks and profits, companies are driven to bias and away from civic-mindedness. Introduce healthy incentives and revenue structure and media won’t be perfect, but it will be much, much better.

With this in mind, it seems sensible to let these big companies actually fend for themselves in the information market without a Section 230 freebie. If they had to do this, well, lo and behold, they might have to fund actual journalism that isn’t rooted in clicks but invested in the truest toolbox of any real news-gatherer — the who, what, when, where, why and how? If social media companies had to accept some responsibility for what they traffic, then maybe we could break out of click culture, which is a black hole for society, as far as I’m concerned, a race to a societal bottom.

In this matter, I’m rooting for Trump to get his wish. Abolish Section 230. Take away the Facebook and Twitter government exemptions on content responsibility and let these companies face the music. It would be a bitter pill in the short term for them, but needed medicine for society in the long run.

Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal, a sister newspaper of The Barrow News-Journal. He can be reached at zach@mainstreetnews.com

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