A top Twitter executive has a stern warning for governments considering new ways to rein in disinformation and hateful speech online: Such rules threaten to cleave the global internet at the expense of democracy.
“If you lose this global open internet — and start having a more fragmented internet — then that’s going to be colossally damaging not just for speech around the world but also for open democratic norms,” said Nick Pickles, Twitter’s head of global policy.
Story Continued Below
And even if the U.S. government does try to act, Congress might not be up to the task because of the technological illiteracy of some of its members, according to Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.)
The myriad challenges in how to deal with disinformation and hateful speech on the internet emerged in interviews by Pickles, Khanna and others with POLITICO’s Global Translations podcast.
It comes as lawmakers, regulators and anti-violence advocates have argued that bad actors ranging from online bullies to terrorist organizations have embraced social media. They say digital platforms haven’t done enough on their own to combat the threat. And while government efforts to compel action in the U.S. have been limited, political leaders around the world are growing less restrained. That has platforms on the defensive.
“We’re at the dawn of this century that’s going to be defined by three or four big global powers that are going to be using the internet as a massive extension of their geopolitical power,” Pickles told the podcast. “Right now, whenever I go to a government, they say, ‘How do we recreate Silicon Valley? How do we have the next company like yours in our country?’ And I see people [in the U.S.] talking about losing the regulatory framework that gave you that — when the rest of the world is begging for a little bit of that kind of magic.”
Regulation could also stifle the creation of new start-ups and preempt competition, he warned, locking in the dominance of the existing tech companies that many politicians already say are too powerful — and should be broken up for the sake of promoting competition.
“Social media is barely 15 years old. We’re just at the beginning of the information century. And depending on the regulatory steps you take now, you [could] pull the ladder up and basically you’re left with the companies you have now. That’s it,” he said. “The risk is that if you if you throw the baby out with the bathwater, you lose that competition.”
Pickles said the company is addressing the influx of harmful online content by, among other things, spotting and removing bad actors through both artificial intelligence and human review, sharing best practices with other online platforms and being more transparent about its rules and decision-making process. Twitter recently began labeling tweets that violate its terms of service but remain on the platform because of their news value — a move widely interpreted as aimed at President Donald Trump.
Twitter is among the social media platforms that have joined the Christchurch Call, a voluntary agreement put together by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron in the wake of a March mass shooting in New Zealand, video of which spread on social networks. Under the arrangement, the platforms agree to take “transparent, specific measures” to combat the spread of terrorist and violent extremist content.
In Washington, Republicans have demanded that the social platforms refrain from what they see, citing minimal evidence, as the sites’ tendencies to discriminate against conservative voices. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, has proposed legislation that would require companies like Twitter and Facebook to be certified as “politically neutral” before they can enjoy decades-old limits on their liability for the content users post to them.
Silicon Valley’s congressman, Ro Khanna, told the podcast that Congress is ill-equipped to regulate social media — citing the ill-informed questions some senators asked Mark Zuckerberg at a hearing in April.
“You don’t need to be a doctor to regulate health care but you do have to have basic curiosity and a basic understanding of expertise,” he said. “And so if someone was testifying as a doctor and people were asking them, ‘Well, is my heart located in my feet?‘ people would laugh. And that’s the level of sophistication that many members of Congress showed. It’s not that they were required to have computer science degrees. It’s that they didn’t know what apps were. They didn’t know that Apple made the iPhone and not Google. They didn’t know that Facebook sold ads. Most junior high school students have a greater knowledge of technology than many of the members of Congress.”
In the place of government intervention, Khanna argued social media companies should form a consortium to remove certain kinds of content.
“I would argue that these tech companies should form a consortium to come up with some basic guidelines. They should have a review of the material that tags information that has excessive hate speech or that is targeting minorities. And then they need to have human review once the initial tag has been placed to see whether it’s a news item or whether it’s something that isn’t a news item. And if it’s not a news item and it’s hateful speech they should remove it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Europe has begun passing or contemplating a range of laws addressing online hate speech. Germany, for example, has adopted a rule requiring sites to pull down illegal content within a day of being notified of it; France and the UK are considering similar proposals. Many experts say those rules are incompatible with American constitutional protections on free speech.
Khanna said there are other reasons the U.S. should not follow the European example. “Europe is pretty irrelevant when it comes to innovation and new technology. I would argue the United States has succeeded — and then China has because of state-based capitalism and propping up companies like Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent — but Europe has been very stagnant in the new economy so I’m not sure I would look to Europe as a model,” he said.
Věra Jourová, European commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, told the podcast that given its history of ethnic wars, Europe cannot afford to tolerate hate speech.
Social media “woke up the old demons,” she said. Those demons include homophobia and anti-Semitism as well as hatred of Roma people, Muslims and other religious groups, she said.
“Each country has its own demons,” she told the podcast. “That’s why we want Facebook and other companies which agreed to cooperate in the fight against hate speech. That’s why we want them to be active in all the member states to understand the nature of the hate threat.”
A turning point for politicians in Brussels was the influx of refugees into Europe in 2016 that “increased incredibly the level of hate speech online in almost all the member states,” she said. Europe responded by instituting a voluntary code of conduct that requires social media companies to remove hate speech quickly after its posting.
“We came with our European solution. We had to do it. We had to be quick and efficient because too much was at stake — millions of people were endangered because in 2016,” she said, online violence was close to jumping to the real world.
Jourová says that today she stays off of social media. “I have real friends. I read good books. I am able to smell the beauty of the real world. I’m really happy. I was able to resist it in spite of the fact that many told me as a politician you are dead, because you need Facebook to keep alive in the world of political marketing. I don’t believe it.”