Where does most of the ill feeling, rumor mongering and blowing out of proportion using half-baked facts in our local communities occur? We all know the answer — Facebook.
That’s hurtful to our society. There is less civil dialogue and more destructive talk. As the Bible says, “But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!” This same story is being played out throughout the country. How has this been allowed to happen? Let me explain.
The social media company has grown to an enormous size by exploiting a legal loophole that allows it to be a publisher when it suits the company’s needs and not be a publisher when it wants to avoid liability for things posted on its platform. Increasingly, voices from both the right and left of American politics are calling for that double standard to be eliminated.
On the right, the U.S. Justice Department under Republican President Donald Trump is pushing to cut many of the legal protections provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The Justice Department has concerns that Facebook unfairly regulates conservative speech on its platform while letting similar liberal messages continue.
That’s the sort of thing that a publisher does: Decide what it wants to print or not. But Facebook cannot pick and choose what it allows to be on its platform based on the message while claiming it’s a neutral carrier of information, like a phone line. For example, AT&T can’t reasonably be expected to monitor what’s said on its phone lines, that’s why it has an exemption from liability for when its materials are used in illegal ways.
But if Facebook continues to take an active role policing its site — just last week it took down political ads from Trump just because it didn’t like what was being said — it’s clearly establishing itself as a publisher. Why doesn’t it want that status? Because Facebook profits greatly from the large audiences and thus advertisers that are drawn toward the latest slanderous gossip being shared on its site, and you can’t publish such things if you’re held responsible for them.
Facebook knows that the most eyeballs are drawn to racy posts that elicit scores of comments; in fact, it encourages such negative behavior by promoting those posts to show to more people while diminishing the views on less bombastic messages that don’t engender as much strife.
No legitimate publisher, including this newspaper, could ever get away with allowing the things that are said daily on Facebook. Even if I sell a paid advertisement, over which the advertiser has control over the message, I can be held responsible for any libelous content in the ad if I allow it to be run in my newspaper.
Yet Facebook, which has been eating the lunch of small publishing companies for the past decade by selling advertising around this filth, gets away with libel that I can’t do. How is that fair? Congress should follow the Justice Department’s advice and take away Facebook’s libel exemption. That would open up the gates to lawsuits and force Facebook to finally take seriously detrimental things done on its website.
And meanwhile, on the left, the NAACP and Anti-Defamation League are calling for ad boycotts because they say Facebook has failed “to adequately fight bigotry and violence on its platform,” according to a Wall Street Journal story. Those civil rights groups have a good point: When Facebook does put on its publisher hat and edits what is allowed, it does a terrible job at it. Good for those groups for pushing needed reforms.
In closing, let me try to dig into the depths of my heart and say something nice about Mark Zuckerberg’s baby: Facebook has finally shown us what can unite liberals and conservatives in contemporary America: a mutual loathing of a company that profits by using our own worst natures to destroy us.
Are you ready to escape this cycle of destruction? I am — and I think millions of my fellow Americans are, too.
Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of the Columbian Progress. Reach him at (601) 736-2611.