Politicians, Privacy, and Social Media

Politicians, Privacy, and Social Media
by pragerfan

May 25, 2019

Yesterday I listened to several hours of Congressional testimony from Facebook and Twitter executives, as well as the CEO of Google, Mr. Sundar Pichai. The testimony focused mostly focused around the contention that so-called "Big Tech" (Google, Twitter, Facebook, Apple, etc.) is engaged in systemic bias against conservative points of view. There is much anecdotal evidence to support this assertion outside the examples mentioned in the testimony. For example Project Veritas has documented several instances of social media technical people saying on camera that their purpose was to root out conservative views from their platform. Notably, the excuse for doing this is that conservative viewpoints are now considered "hate speech." "Hate speech" is of course a largely undefinable category in which different people set different bars for "hate speech." If you are on the Left, hate speech is espousing a strong conservative view, or supporting Donald Trump, because you believe that Donald Trump is a racist and a hater. Some on the Left go so far as to define "hate speech" as speech they disagree with — they define it this way by their reactions to it. For example, the vitriol from the Left following the Governor of Missouri's decision to sign a bill banning abortion after 8 weeks was greeted with such vitriol, animus and hatred on the Left that one might think that the Governor engaged in hate speech merely by signing the bill. If you are on the Right, hate speech may consist of, for example, antisemitic bigotry or racial epithets. But among many things that distinguish Right from Left, those on the Right believe that the 1st Amendment protects speech that you may find disagreeable. It protects speech that you may find repulsive, or against which you may have a visceral reaction. In fact, many on the Right believe that the 1st Amendment — outside of a few narrowly construed exceptions such as "fighting words" and speech that could cause imminent harm such as the cliched example of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater — protects all speech, including so-called hate speech.

The right of free speech is, perhaps along with the freedom of religion, the foundation of all other rights. Governmental systems that attempt to control what people can say and cannot say are rightly viewed as totalitarian, or at the very least authoritarian. This is because the freedoms of speech and of religion are essential to our understanding of what it means to be a human being who lives, interacts, and walks among other human beings. If you're not convinced, try living for a week without uttering a single word. Even Justice Thomas, who is well-known for not speaking during oral arguments at the Supreme Court, likely could not do that.

So how do we unravel this spiders' nest of politicians, privacy, 1st Amendment, social media, private versus public fora, &c.? Let's begin by noting the foundational reasons for social media to begin with: mankind's quest for knowledge and the exchange of ideas. Indeed, the goal of Google as I see it is to eventually build an index of all known information. By some accounts they are close to this goal. Unless you type gibberish into the Google search bar, regardless of your topic you'll very likely get a result that matches in at least some respects the information you're searching for. In this way, anyone, anywhere, and at any time can log into Google and find information on any conceivable topic. Want to learn how to cook a tasty dish? Google it. Want to learn how to play chess like a master? Google it. Want to learn how to build a bomb? Google it. While Google may track searches, it doesn't distinguish between the user and the content searched for — that is, it doesn't necessarily know that the person at the keyboard may a known terrorist seeking to construct a devastating explosive, or that he may be a war historian trying to understand how aerial bombardment was conducted in World War II. Google therefore can't "choose" not to show content to a certain segment of users. If it blocks a result for one, it blocks that result for all.

The mission of social media is somewhat different. Mr. Pichai described the business of Google as more search and not so much connecting people. Google's attempt at connecting people largely failed (that was Google Plus) and the effort was ultimately abandoned. Google proved unwilling or unable to compete with Facebook and Twitter in the social media venue. Facebook's mission is arguably to establish communities and connections, while Twitter seems to be more of a news and speech platform. Conservatives argue that both of these outlets censor them based on point of view. Espouse a conservative view on Twitter and you risk being "shadowbanned:" Shadow-banning means that while you can post content, your content is not visible to other users on the platform. I actually left Twitter a while back because I thought I was being shadowbanned, but I was never able to prove via a preponderance of the evidence that this was case. Ultimately I came back to Twitter because it has ONE feature that other social media outlets like Disqus do not have — or at least, that I don't know of — and that's the ability to limit the number of tweets (or posts) on Twitter feed integrated into a web page. I rejoined Twitter because at this point, I have given up about caring whether my posts are seen by others on the Twitter platform itself; what matters is whether the reader on my website can see my posts on my Twitter feed. Once in a while I'll log into Twitter and maybe answer a reply or two, but most of my engagement with the platform is passive. I post to Twitter and my tweets appear on my website. It works for me, and it's free.

As for Facebook, I was on Facebook for awhile. Facebook was pretty useful to me a number of years ago. By reconnecting with an old friend of mine who worked for what was then called the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service), I was able to track down my best friend from childhood, and he and I still talk fairly often. Just recently I went to California to visit him and his family. I built up a rather large community of Facebook friends; at one point I was over 140. But the platform ended up being a timesink: I found that when I logged into Facebook I would spend several hours on the site, without doing anything productive. That's how Facebook likes it, but I had better things to do with my time. Ultimately, I left the platform simply because it just didn't matter to me anymore that a Facebook friend took his dog to the vet or spent an hour in the bathroom reading the New York Times. So much for my experience with Facebook.

Because I work in IT — including a stint as an IT Auditor — I tend to give some credence to Mr. Pichai's and others' assertion that it is impossible to monitor and police all content. For example, Youtube receives, according to Mr. Pichai, 400 hours of video content every minute. There are trillions of Google searches, millions of tweets, and billions of Facebook posts every year. It's not feasible to proactively police all internet content 24 hours a day. As a result, these companies have enacted rules and policies — most of which are automated — to determine whether content is acceptable to display on their sites. While artificial intelligence algorithms sort through a majority of content, there are people whose job is to moderate content that gets past the AI filters. When the AI filters can't figure it out, these people make the decision whether to block content, or to allow it to remain unblocked.

A clear picture of who these moderators are unfortunately did not emerge from the testimony. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were met only with generalities about content moderators, leaving the public to suspect that moderators are some sort of "shadowy group," perhaps also leading to conspiracy theories among some of the more wild-eyed out there. But what did emerge from the hours of executive grilling was the notion that search results on Google, and trending results on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, are mostly (but not always) driven by other users on the internet, searching for the same content, or looking for the same news. In addition, it was pointed out by a Democrat no less, that 80% of the people who work for "Big Tech" are on the liberal side of the political spectrum and live in Silicon Valley. As a corollary, this means that the engineers who write the code and maintain the algorithms of search and trends are therefore also likely to strongly tilt Left — just as if the company had been located in a more conservative state, employees as a whole might tend to tilt Right, or at least not so far to the Left. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that conservatives within these companies are marginalized: when 80% of your coworkers disagree with you, you're not going to win that popularity contest.

Political correctness ("PC") is unfortunately eating away at the fabric of free speech. PC is particularly insidious because it's not government censorship per se, which is prohibited by the First Amendment. There isn't much legal recourse for the victims of PC because PC is a shaming movement: say something that the mob considers hate speech, and you are shamed out of employment, shamed off of a platform, and so on. Most of the time the shaming is in the form of "your content has violated our community standards," yet, either we are never told precisely what these standards are nor do we know anything about how they are enforced.

The most well-known example of PC clashing with free speech is the saga of James Damore. Damore, working at Google, wrote a memo on the gender gap in technology, in which he compared the relative aptitude of male brains to female brains for engineering and other science-related disciplines. The memo contained no ad hominem attacks nor profanity. It was well-written, though of course not perfect. For example, Damore makes the claim that "some on the Right deny science that runs counter to the 'God > humans> environment' hierarchy," but overlooks that claims about God are inherently unprovable and non-scientific; science, which deals with what can be observed and measured, cannot be affirmed nor denied on the basis of claims about the kind of being God is, or about His relationship to His creation.

For noting, inter alia, innocuous common-sense truisms such as "women on average show a higher interest in people and men in things," Damore was summarily fired from his engineering job at Google, on the flimsy pretext that his memo did not reflect the "company's Values," even though little explanation was offered regarding the nature of those values or why Damore was really fired. Because Google is a private company — private in the sense that it is not owned by the government, nor would we want it to be — Damore did not enjoy First Amendment protection, since the First Amendment protects the citizen only against government. Because California is an at-will employment state, employers based there may terminate an employee at any time for any reason, subject of course to exceptions provided for by law. Accordingly but not surprisingly, Damore's wrongful termination complaint to the liberal National Labor Relations Board went nowhere.

It goes without saying that there are many other James Damores — other victims of political correctness. Brendan Eich, the co-founder in 1998 of Mozilla, lost his job as the CEO of Mozilla in 2014 because he dared to donate $1,000 in support of Proposition 8 in California. Proposition 8 was a referendum that amended the California state Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman. Proposition 8 was successful (52%-47%) before being overturned by a federal judge, and the decision upheld by the Left-wing Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Even though Mr. Eich apologized and pledged to "promote equality" at Mozilla (importantly, "promoting equality" really means promoting Left-wing values), Left-wing activists created an online shaming campaign and within a week and a half Brendan Eich, who had invented mozilla.org, lost his job as a result of exercising his Constitutional right to free speech. Such is the power of an online shaming campaign. Disagree with the Left in the private sector, and you place your job and livelihood in grave peril.

The government of course must respect the protections offered by the Constitution; the Constitution protects the citizen from the overreaches of federal and state governments. But private companies are, as a rule, not required to honor First Amendment protections. Companies have wide latitude to hire and fire as they see fit. Indeed, we would not want government to choose who is hired and who is fired, or to pick winners and losers. With respect to private business, the government is supposed to be, in the words Chief Justice Roberts used to describe the Courts, an umpire "calling balls and strikes," and not a player on either team. But this presumes that there is a work sphere and a personal sphere. When I'm at work, I represent my company so I am accountable to my company. For example I can't engage in political protest on company time, and the company may terminate me if I act in such a manner as to be sufficiently injurious to it. Until the advent of the internet and social media, however, my personal time was my own. My company generally didn't care what political causes I supported or what I did on my own personal time, provided that I was not acting in the name of the company while away from work.

Perhaps more importantly, before the internet and social media, it would have taken a long time for controversial remarks to rile up enough people to take action. We recall the case of Sir Tim Hunt, who made an offhand joke about women in the laboratory a few years ago while giving a lecture in Korea. The joke was as follows:
It's strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now, seriously, I'm impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.
These remarks were misconstrued by the Left as "sexist" and by the time his plane had touched down back home in Britain, Sir Tim had lost his professorship at University College London and several key research and policy positions, all without a hearing or any opportunity to defend himself. Sir Tim Hunt received the 2001 Nobel Prize for his scientific work. This travesty was only possible because of the instantaneous nature of internet communication and the rapidity with which online shamers could mount a vicious social media campaign to destroy an innocent man. Profit could not have been a motive in this case because government-sponsored academia is not a for-profit enterprise. This was clearly a Left-wing PC campaign to smear an otherwise world-class scientist. Again, as in the case of James Damore and Brendan Eich, so much for free speech. In fact, so much for making a joke. For the Left, it doesn't matter that Sir Tim
...has been instrumental in the advancement of many other women and men in science beyond those in his own lab" and how he had "actively encouraged an interest in science in schoolchildren and young scientists, arranging for work experience and summer students of both genders to get their first taste of research in his lab. (source here — paywall)
What matters to the Left is that Sir Tim made a joke and that the PC crowd was offended. But I digress. None of this would have happened, I believe, were it not for instant communication facilitated by social media. Supposing there were no internet or social media, news of Sir Tim's comments might not ever have reached Britain, and even if it did, it likely would have slipped through so many ears that recollections would be unreliable at best. But when the world is watching a lecture, and that world includes the social justice warriors who are perpetually offended at the slightest insult or joke, and these have the megaphone of social media at their fingertips, what happened to a Nobel Prize-winning scientist can very easily happen to any of us.

Fortunately Sir Tim was reinstated. The next victim of social media outrage will likely not be so lucky.

Private companies have even more to fear and are often just as spineless if not more so than academia. Private companies fear brand damage and risk. If someone in leadership makes a statement similar to that of Tim Hunt, or like Brendan Eich to support causes against which the current zeitgeist blows, or like James Damore to make a contrarian argument on an internal company forum intended for precisely that — argument, and this becomes public, company profits may suffer. Companies rarely have long-range outlooks; most firms are concerned with just making the numbers for the coming quarter or year. People too easily fall victim to the guilt-by-association tactic: because James Damore said something controversial at Google, something that is not seen by the Left as upholding PC values, Google must be a bad company and therefore I'm not going to patronize them with my business.

This stems partially from the fact that the public, especially younger people, make purchasing decisions today increasingly based on how "woke" or socially conscious/progressive/liberal (these all mean the same thing) a company is, rather than whether or not the company makes a good product. On the other hand, I drink coffee at Starbucks because Starbucks makes good coffee. I don't give a rat's rear end about Starbucks' "wokeness," what they are doing to save the Amazon rain forest, what they are doing to promote LGBTQ+ diversity, whether they promote equality, and so forth. Conversely, if Starbucks no longer makes a good cup of coffee, I'm not going to patronize it with my business, regardless of how much money it donates to conservative political campaigns, advocates for traditional Judeo-Christian values, etc. The coffee has to be good, period. The product has to be good, or the company doesn't earn my business.

The aforementioned view, however, seems to be on the decline. In the area of relatively inexpensive goods (like coffee at Starbucks), corporate politics and perceived political positions have become far more important than the quality of a product. So firms drop relationships with people who, while they might be notable executives and employees, are perceived to bring an increased repuation risk of online shaming campaigns and attendant reputational damage resulting in financial loss. Because of their myopic vision — not realizing that social media "crises" are ephemeral and "this too shall pass," companies punish differing points of view, as they don't have a long-term strategy but only seem to function tactically. This is not true only for figures on the right side of the political spectrum; several advertisers dropped Colin Kaepernick as a result of the blowback resulting fom his refusal to stand for the national anthem a while ago, even though today that episode is largely forgotten.

I've diverged a bit in order to provide several examples of social media destroying — or attempting to destroy — the careers of those who publicly disagree with what is politically correct. Is there a political bias in big tech? If there is, what can realistically be done to address it?

As I noted above, the culture of many big tech companies is liberal for the simple reason that those who work for the company are liberal, often by as much as a 4 to 1 margin. It's no surprise, therefore, that Google, Facebook, and Twitter are liberal outfits. Let's begin with the question of whether big tech has a responsibility to ensure a level playing field, or whether such a thing is even possible.

I'm not an expert on how Google's search algorithms are written, how Facebook connects people to content they want, or how Twitter decides what is "trending" and what isn't, otherwise I'd probably be working for one of these companies. But I do know that it's impossible to individually police the millions of tweets, billions of interactions, or trillions of searches that occur every day on social media platforms. I don't think that big tech is required to ensure a level or neutral playing field; in fact because of the sheer volume of data I don't think this is possible nor is it desirable. As I explained above, machines decide based on algorithms what content visitors to social media sites will see and will not see. It's not clear to me what a "level playing field" would consist of and who would enforce that. Not only would you need enforcers you would need monitors to ensure the enforcers are doing what they're supposed to be doing. On top of that you would need auditors to come in and evaluate the monitors and enforcers. For the government to force a "level playing field" on social media seems to be an intractable problem, not in the least because content visibility is in part driven by what other internet users choose to view. That's simply not something that government can or should control in a free and open society. Furthermore, these are private companies; I am very wary of letting the government step into this for the simple reason that, outside of providing for external defense, government doesn't do a lot of things very well. So I view government intervention to force big tech to make a level playing field, or to force absolute neutrality, with an extremely jaundiced eye.

Big tech companies should forthrightly acknowledge that they are not neutral public forums (NPF). Facebook and Google aren't simply forum moderators. They don't exist to provide you a free account so that you can talk all day on the platform. They exist for profit (nothing wrong with that), and there are terms and conditions a user agrees to as a condition of service. An account is free, but like any freebie, they can revoke your account at any time for mostly any reason — a user does not have a right to an account. On that basis alone, they cannot be considered an NPF, because to be revoked from participation in an NPF would seem to require some basic level of due process. Social media companies do not provide "due process." We can deduce that they are not NPFs based on their business model. During Congressional testimony, social media executives could not bring themselves to deny that social media is an NPF. They repeatedly danced around the question. The reason is that if they say, "we are a neutral public forum," Constitutional protections apply to the public square and they would be forced to implement technology to uphold these protections. For example, they would not be able to ban a controversial figure like Milo Yiannapoulos if they felt that his continuing presence on their platform posed an unacceptable reputational risk, because in the public square my right to free speech cannot be abridged mere corporate risk. On the other hand, if the say "we are not a neutral public forum," they would be dishonest because that is precisely how they sold themselves for years early on in order to get everyone hooked on their platforms. Who would join a social media platform that doesn't include, promote, and ensure neutrality i.e. fairness as core values of that platform's user engagement and experience?

The hemming and hawing whether to be or not to be an NPF has been brought about in part by the revenue model that powers the internet: give away a service in exchange for user information that is then used to market products back to the user. Google is the master of this business model but every website that uses Google to power its advertising also employs this strategy indirectly. Information privacy has become a big deal over the last 5-10 years, the latest manifestation of that deal being the EU's rolling out of GDPR, the underlying philosophy of which loudly proclaims, "Privacy IS Security!" The EU mindset, mired in a continent with a long and bloody history of warfare among many sovereign states, and wishing to prevent another Nazi-like regime (Godwin's law I know, but bear with me), looks rightly askew at any mass collection of personal information on private citizens. Americans, unencumbered by this historical baggage, initially had no problem with giving away information about themselves in order to obtain a free service such as gmail. But as the number of notable data breaches grew, with their attendant inconvenience, people's thinking even here in America began to shift toward a more privacy-focused mindset. Ergo, the social media companies have found that they can appeal to everyone by claiming that the way they implement "free speech" on their platforms is to ensure your information is protected. In the Congressional testimony, executives deflected a number of questions related to censorship of conservatives by noting that their companies provided reasonable assurance of user privacy.

"I am not censoring speech because I am protecting user privacy" is fallacious. But as I've pointed out, big tech can't say, "sorry folks, we're not neutral, we're on the Left and we do remove content and deplatform users based on political considerations," because to acknowledge this outright that would alienate millions of users (not all of whom are on the right, by the way, e.g. Laurence Tribe, Alan Dershowitz, and like-minded prominent liberals have called out social media on this as well). Neither can big tech perpetuate the neutrality facade when it's as obvious as the day is long that there is something going on that is causing conservative speech to be censored on these platforms. We may not understand exactly what it is, or how to define it, but "we know it when we see it" (cf. Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964). There is more than sufficient anecdotal evidence, some of which I've provided above and have experienced first-hand, to suggest that social media is significantly biased against conservatives.

* * *

Conservatives, especially politicians, need to be more technologically literate. I'm not saying that Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) should learn how to hack a linux kernel, but the spectacle of his repeatedly questioning Google CEO Mr. Pichai regarding whether his phone tracks his location when moving from one part of the room to another — while holding up an iPhone — was downright embarrassing. Before alleging bias in big tech, conservative pols need to at least have an elementary understanding of the technology they are dealing with. We can't be taken seriously if we're being laughed out of the room. Moreover, Poe damages the conservative cause by allowing the Left to portray conservatives as a bunch of doddering, out-of-touch, old fools who should never have given up their rotary phones, fax machines, and dot-matrix printers.

Social media companies, while not owned by the government, are public in the sense that they are owned by shareholders. It may be possible for conservative shareholders to start a campaign in order to force social media firms to stop or at least limit censorship of conservative views. Perhaps the threat of boycotting the stock could persuade social media companies to act more equitably toward conservative points of view. In general I don't support boycotts, but there may be no other choice if social media come to be seen as public necessities. This may not occur occur in my lifetime, but it would not surprise me if social media becomes akin to electricity and water future generations.

Conservatives must continue to engage on social media. I once tried a "conservative alternative" to Facebook and Twitter. But Facebook and Twitter have succeeded because they offer a good product that people want (albeit free). Like it or not, Facebook and Twitter are the social media platforms du jour. So we need to continue to be on these platforms and to be vocal. If they want to ban us, great, just create another gmail, register under another user ID, and have another go. But if we retreat to insignificant services like Gab then social media liberal bias becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: social media is biased so conservatives leave. This results in social media being more biased, and more conservatives leave, etc. I just don't see a conservative alternative to Facebook, Google, and Twitter because those companies hold the patents on the technology.

As an aside, you might be surprised to learn that there is some online speech I would like censored by social media. I would like all profanity to be banned, as public profanity is corrosive to the discourse of the body politic. If you can't express a point without using four-letter language, then you don't belong on the platform. The fact that conservatives are banned but profanity is not banned tells us a lot about the amoral nature of big tech.

Well, I've more to say on this later, but I will leave it for another installment.