“Wake up, Dave,” my 47-year-old neighbor told me. “They’re lying to you. The world is flat.” He wasn’t joking, and he wasn’t dissuaded when I informed him that I had directly observed the Earth’s curvature while perched atop the sail of a surfaced submarine in the open ocean on a calm day. Of course, nonsense on the internet fueled my neighbor’s delusion.
Before the ascent of the World Wide Web (WWW), spreading fringe ideas was imprecise and expensive, but “social media,” with its targeted advertising business model and algorithmic preference for viral content, has changed the game. As conspiracies go, “flat Earth” might be relatively benign, but spreading much more harmful ideas is easier and cheaper than ever.
The widely refuted claims that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was fraudulent—claims that inspired violence—are an excellent case in point. Donald Trump, the highest profile architect of this particular lie, is no longer President of the United States, but his message continues to thrive in Facebook groups and Twitter feeds, some of which are the clandestine voice of hostile foreign governments (FBI & CISA). Consequently, a significant portion of Republican voters continue to believe that the election was stolen (Politico). How can we sustain a republic when large swaths of the electorate distrust elections?
. . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government;Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Richard Price, 8 January 1789 (source)
Disinformation in the internet age is an existential threat to effective self-governance, and decisive, top-down action is necessary because “social media” facilitates targeted disinformation at a pace far in excess of individuals’ practical capacity to engage in fact checking. End users are not going to self-regulate consistently, and they are unlikely to quit “social media” entirely. Disinformation must be truncated at the sources by affecting the financial incentives of the platforms through which disinformation spreads.
47 U.S. Code § 230 section c1 states:
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.
This is the legal shield that absolves “social media” companies of liability for much of the damage to societies caused by their services, including the damage from persistent disinformation. This clause should be removed or amended to obligate “social media” companies with a user base above some threshold to police disinformation, and it should impose bankruptcy threatening fines on companies that cannot adequately stem the spread.
Companies will respond—accurately—that stopping disinformation is a very hard technical and social problem. They will ask, “How can we do this?” Legislators should respond, “You figure it out. Your company is not entitled to exist, and we don’t care about your profits.” The existential risk is too great.
Others will sound the alarm about “suppressing free speech.” That objection only has traction whilst we have a republic. The house is on fire, and we need to extinguish the flames before we worry about ideological purity. Speech is now a weapon against our republic.