Opinion

Why Nancy Pelosi's attack on Facebook is dangerous

Beware the slippery slope of social media censorship

Democrats have rightly slammed President Trump for labeling the news media as "enemies of the people." But the nation's most powerful Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, comes pretty close to making a similar accusation when she calls Facebook executives "willing enablers" of Russian election interference in 2016. As she told a San Francisco radio station: "We have said all along, 'Poor Facebook, they were unwittingly exploited by the Russians.' I think wittingly, because right now they are putting up something that they know is false."

Pelosi apparently sees the social media giant's unwillingness to remove a "cheapfake" altered video of her as evidence company boss Mark Zuckerberg learned nothing from the Russia scandal. Or that he simply doesn't care about harmful content on his site as long as it engages users. Maybe both.

Pelosi's take-down demand is politically fascinating given how it publicly escalates the left's attack on Big Tech, an industry that favors Democrats. Facebook employees, for instance, have given nearly 10 times more campaign cash to Democrats than Republicans since it was founded in 2004. But the policy implications are more important and concerning. It's doubtful Pelosi really thought out the long-term implications of powerful politicians regularly pressuring social media firms to remove content that's not advocating illegal action. (Facebook said it would remove the video only if it came from a bogus account or threatened public safety.)

It's easy to imagine a certain "fake news" president demanding the removal of all manner of posts and videos. Maybe Trump will call for Saturday Night Live to remove "very unfair" sketches from its Facebook feed. This is a slippery slope coated in teflon.

And it's not as if Facebook did nothing about the video. Far from it. The company reduced the video's appearance in news feeds and added pop-up menus telling users there is "additional reporting" on the video.

Yet Facebook could have done considerably more. That wimpy warning could have clearly stated the the video was a fake, especially given that it was evidently meant to misinform rather than just mock. And that warning could be more obvious and applied more quickly, says Alexios Mantzarlis, a fellow at TED who helped create Facebook's partnership with fact-checkers. There is obviously a lot of space between just leaving a video up unmoderated and taking it down when some politician or activist objects.

And American policymakers should look closely at how other nations have been struggling to curb misinformation or hate speech online. In The Atlantic, historian Heidi Tworek points out how Germany's 2017 law for social media companies may have inadvertently publicized, via the Streisand Effect, the very speech it was designed to combat. Indeed, Pelosi's complaint about the video, manipulated to make her seem drunk, undoubtedly makes it a must-see, despite Facebook's mild warning. Tworek also notes that many nations are passing fuzzy laws to combat misinformation that seem likely to give governments greater power to suppress speech they don't like.

So many unintended consequences. Of course, that's pretty much the rule with any regulatory attempt. But it seems especially true when it comes to the internet and the dynamic, fast-evolving technology sector. Trade-offs — the tensions between uncomfortable speech and freedom of expression — are ignored or simply overlooked. Europe's big privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation, just had its one-year anniversary. And along with a host of new privacy rights, Europeans have also received a great lesson in how public policy works. More personal control of data? Sure. But also it appears less investment in tech startups and a greater ad-market share for Google and Facebook. That stuff wasn't the intention of the law, yet it's all still happening.

Surely it isn't Pelosi's intention to limit or chill free speech on the internet or enable government suppression of the rights of individuals and businesses. But she might have made it a bit more likely just the same.

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