Water Cooler or Nuclear Biohazard?

Facebook and the COVID-19 test

7 minute read of gloomy but insightful and important stuff about how we stop people dying

Water Cooler or Biohazard?

Normally I think of anti-vaxxers as a small group of anti-science nuts who can be — and indeed usually are — taken with a pinch of salt. (About the dangers of salt you can also read!) However, because vaccination depends on populations getting inoculated, not just individuals, and because the pandemic affects everyone, your lives and mine are being threatened by the disinformation efforts of these nuts and the “contrepreneurs” who profit from them.

Of course, the only reason this combination of kooks and hucksters has any traction is social media. Everyone is talking about vaccines, so the algorithms are going crazy to promote places where there’s “engagement” about vaccines. The jargon term “engagement” basically means getting maximum people “engaged” in maximum yelling at each other. In this instance, the consequence of vaccine “engagement” is the spreading of vaccine lies leading to more deaths.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), with whom I’ve done some work, just put out a report that analyzes the “anti-vaxxer’s deadly plan to disrupt COVID vaccines, and how we can stop them.” Their research shows that, even during the pandemic — and even after major social media companies had been asked to take down this fatal disinformation as a public service and an enforcement of their community standards — anti-vaxxers increased their audience by 20% to nearly 60 million.

That’s roughly like adding the population of Greater New York to the population of England. And social media helped them grow, despite the equivalent of the War of 1776 raging in the coronaviral world.

You can see from this CCDH tweet that the YouTube algorithm is one culprit of the audience growth, but the majority of the increase comes from the Mark Zuckerberg properties Facebook and Instagram.

Facebook is the ultimate water cooler. It’s where I keep up with my friends, follow news and fans of my footy team and share the latest in important, bizarre or specific news. Especially for expats like me it’s amazing, I can live in America and keep up with friends and family in England, Israel, Europe, California and more as if they were next door. For many countries it, effectively, is the internet. Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO has called it an “open social utility.”

But the cost of this “open” utility is not borne by those who profit. In a September 2020 article for Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall explains its business model: “Facebook is best understood as a fantastically profitable nuclear energy company whose profitability is based on dumping the waste on the side of the road and accepting frequent accidents and explosions as inherent to the enterprise.”

I’ve bent your ear before about how Facebook profits economically and politically from anti-Muslim pogroms in India and from state-sponsored genocide in Myanmar. Others have written about Facebook’s promotion of QAnon and its ongoing collaboration with Europe’s growing neo-Nazi movement. So, by Pastor Niemöller logic, India’s 200 million Muslim minority and Myanmar’s murdered Rohingya aren’t going to lobby Facebook or Western governments to shut down the neo-Nazis, QAnon conspiracists and people profiting from the spread of COVID-19.

So while there’s a high bar of social responsibility, the COVID-19 bar is pathetically low for Zuckerberg. Stop killing people. There’s a direct line of causation: people read lies, they fail to take action that will save their lives and the lives of others, more people die. Every dollar Zuckerberg makes from anti-vaxxers, people will die. His wife Priscilla Chan is a pediatrician. She doesn’t condone anti-vaxxers hanging out in pediatric waiting rooms handing out leaflets and spreading lies and neither should her husband. He needs to stop taking money from people undermining those very health experts who are saving us from the pandemic. But, in 10 months of pandemic he hasn’t de-platformed these lunatics putting us all in danger, he’s “grown their reach.”

As a private owner, Zuckerberg can do almost anything he wants with Facebook. His arguments about “Free speech” are a mere distraction: sex-trafficking is banned, copyrighted movies are banned, if he so chose, he could even ban Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp membership for everyone with a first name beginning with “D.” He sets the Community Standards and the belated PR-inspired ban on Holocaust Denial and is fine when they are not enforced. What all this means, practically, is that Facebook’s current stance of taking money for hate — of taking money for anti-science death-mongering — is OK with Zuck.

So far in his attempt to “move fast and break things” Zuckerberg has shown that among the things he’s prepared to break is civil society. And he’s shown no sign so far that he would balk at breaking the entire Enlightenment project. It seems that 2020 has revealed that there’s no distinction between the metaphors, Zuckerberg’s water cooler is itself radioactive and we’re beginning to glow.

What To Do: Part I

SECTION 230 excerpt:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

Shielded by these 26 words of Section 230, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others are not legally responsible for the content they support, provide and amplify and profit from. Written in 1996, the legislation reflected the struggles of the American legislature trying to support a nascent tech industry that was having trouble with moderating its content.

In the late 20th century, American legislators, even now not known for their tech smarts, were trying to work out whether the online message boards of CompuServe and Prodigy were like bulletin boards, like newspapers, like TV channels, like bookshops or like something else. They plumped for “something like bookshops” — entities that aren’t legally responsible for libels that are contained in the publications they offer.

Now we know that, unlike bookshops, Facebook is invasive and ubiquitous. It’s most akin to bringing home a newspaper that comes with a little alien spy who watches what you read and do, and takes the newspaper’s money every time you read an ad. For the past few years, this alien spy who came in with your New York Times, or your alumni magazine, has been watching everything you do. It’s sole purpose is to make you pay attention to it no matter what that takes. In the short term that means beeps or flashing lights or lies. In the long term that means encouraging you to be anxious, fearful and angry the whole time, or even, as it turns out, threatening you with death.

So we can scrap 230, or leave it, or amend it. Leaving it means more of the same mess. Scrapping it might be a good idea if it is politically feasible and we have a good model to describe social media and its harms. As my alien spy metaphor shows, though, social media’s invasive role is difficult to describe and passing an entire replacement bill might be difficult to effect, politically.

What we know works is providing clear ways for litigation to realign social media’s financial incentives. If YouTube, Facebook and Twitter won’t stop peddling hate or death for profit, lawmakers need to make sure that there are financial punishments when social media take anti-social actions.

Wikipedia notes the limits that already exist.

Section 230 protections are not limitless, requiring providers to still remove material illegal on a federal level such as copyright infringement. In 2018, Section 230 was amended by the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA-SESTA) to require the removal of material violating federal and state sex trafficking laws. 

We should push to expand these exceptions, as indeed representatives Tom Malinowski and Anna Eshoo have proposed. Their bill would only affect massive networks and the algorithms that amplify “harmful, radicalizing content that leads to offline violence.”

The reason that Malinowski and Eshoo mention “offline violence” is because tort litigation needs to prove someone was harmed. Adding an exception about holding social media responsible for lies that damage public health should also be easy to effect and should be a sine qua non of that bill’s passage.

What To Do: Part II — The hard part is in process

Josh Marshall not only likened Facebook to an untended nuclear reactor, he also described it as “the prime online, global incubator of racist, quasi-fascist propaganda, conspiracy theories, state-run psyops and agit-prop operations, even in at least one case actual state-backed programs of population transfer and arguable genocide.”

The insidious corrosion of civic values, scientific trust and belief in democracy that comes from the alignment of profit with bad faith divisiveness is harder to legislate against and, though I have some ideas, I’ll take your suggestions too!

Happy Holidays, here’s to the vaccine.