On this episode of High Noon, Inez Stepman interviews Robby Soave, author of the new book Tech Panic: Why We Shouldn’t Fear Facebook or the Future. Robby is also senior editor at Reason magazine, where he has been at the forefront of reporting the truth about stories like the Covington protestors incident and the UVA rape hoax.
Robby and Inez discuss concerns about our emerging technological landscape, social media censorship, and the relationship between tech companies and the government. They also go back and forth about whether the rapid digitalization of our lives will be transformative in a positive or negative way.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. Inviting interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.
Welcome to High Noon, where we discuss controversial topics with interesting people. And my guest this week is Robby Soave. Robby is a senior editor at Reason Magazine. He’s the author of Panic Attack, a book about cancel culture, as well as his most recent book Tech Panic: Why We Shouldn’t Fear Facebook or the Future.
You also might know him from his frequent appearances on news programs across the political spectrum. And also from his amazing and stellar reporting on a whole host of subjects at Reason including I think relevantly to the kind of frame that he takes to this big tech discussion, getting out ahead of big media panics in situations like the Covington kids case, the Rolling Stone UVA rape story. Both of those turned out to be wildly different than how they were initially reported.
And so I think he’s carved out a niche for himself here telling the rest of us not to panic about things. And he’s often been right in advancing that narrative. Sir Robby, welcome to High Noon.
Thanks so much for having me. Great to talk with you.
So, let me know, why shouldn’t we panic about big tech because it does seem to be getting very scary? And as you point out, there’s a certain confluence or at least there’s a certain fear that’s shared on the left and the right about where we are going in terms of social media, big tech companies. And the left and the right have different concerns and you addressed them throughout this book one at a time. But what’s the basic bottom line? Why aren’t you panicking like the rest of us?
Social media is a new development, a new innovation, in the communication space — one in a long history of new developments in the communication space. And with all the previous inventions, new ways of talking to each other, sharing ideas, communicating, there have always been problems that arise because of these new forms. Everything from video games to television, to the radio, to the phonograph, to the written word, the printing press, etcetera.
There’s always been a lot of concern, a lot of paranoia, a lot of panic about how these things were going to change society. But I make the case that overall, they usually mostly make society better. The change is good. There are some problems, and we are definitely seeing some problems with social media. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one to say that every single thing that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Google have wrought is good.
But my main point in the book is two things: one, that while I agree with some of the concerns, I think many others are overstated. I also think the solutions on the table range from would not address the problem, two, would make things much, much worse. Did I say two things? I really meant three things. The third thing being that we tend to discount the positive, the benefit of social media, the way it has made our lives better.
And I think this is especially true on the right. I think there’s been a lot of anti-big tech rhetoric and writing in conservative media that glosses over the fact that on the whole, social media has been I think pretty inarguably a net positive for conservative, provocative contrarian communicating and messaging. And we should be glad that social media has provided this. So let’s be careful if we’re talking about doing things to tweak social media that we don’t end up hurting ourselves.
You’re in the very funny position of defending what everybody is doing but doesn’t like in abstract. But in terms of their revealed preferences, we all spend a lot of time on social media, or at least a lot of us do.
So let’s start with that issue, the issue of addiction or how much time we’re spending interacting on social media and on the internet more generally. That was the subject of some of this, the recent “whistleblower hearings” that we heard in Congress. Why are you not worried about how much time particularly young people are spending in the digital space as opposed to the real 3D space?
Right. Yeah. Frances Haugen, the whistleblower came forward with more information and it was treated as this big revelation. But as far as I could tell, it was mostly information we already know which is that smartphone dependency, being on social media too much can absolutely be a problem for some teenagers.
I think parents are correct and should do more of this to actually limit the amount of time their kids spend on social media. Try to keep phones out of the bedroom so they go to bed at a healthy time. But I don’t think the data supports the more dramatic concerns.
A lot of kids benefit from spending time on social media because they’re interacting with their friends. They can fight with them. Sometimes it can make them sad or depressed by it. But I bet if you asked all these kids, a significant minority were saying — especially teenage girls were saying — that they have depression, and it really does stem from Instagram.
I would wonder what would happen if you would survey them on how high school makes them feel. I bet you would find a huge majority of teenagers saying that many days going to school makes them depressed during normal times. I bet you’d also find that being forced to stay in their rooms and not interact with anyone outside their immediate family as we asked them during the pandemic was really, really promoting of unhealthy teen mental problems which actually social media was sort of alleviating.
I think probably teenagers were lucky that they did have this fall but not a good way of communicating. If we want actual get out there in the world, do sports, do activities. But this was better than nothing. And specifically, when you look at the kids who use social media the most, who are using it all the time, you do see some self-reporting of negative emotions. But you also see that among kids who aren’t using social media at all.
And also, we’re living through an era where people are much more open about talking about their mental health, how they’re feeling on the inside, their traumas, their triggers, that kind of thing. So, it doesn’t actually surprise me if you’re seeing in survey results that more young people are comfortable saying that they’re having trauma.
In fact, on college campuses, having trauma is like a way to gain power in progressive activist circles. So, were kind of like sloppily correlating it with or saying it’s caused explicitly by social media in ways that I’m just not quite convinced of. So, I definitely think look out for this. Parents should limit the amount of time their kids spend on their devices, that’s fine. But I’m not seeing anything to suggest like, “Oh, this is ruining kids.”
And then I’m cognizant of the recent moral panics like the ones over violent video games or what have you which all turned out to be pretty wrong in retrospect.
So, I mean I don’t think many people — I’m not saying no one — but I don’t think many people would say that social media has no social … it’s called social media but has no social benefits. I mean, I think we’re about the same age. So, we both probably started out on AOL Messenger.
I know I only learned how to type properly because I wanted to talk to my friends on AOL Messenger. I was not convinced by my typing classes in school that it was important at all until I wanted to be able to dash off all of those messages to my friends and those blinking little windows — which I’m really dating myself here.
It seems to me that early on in the social media evolution and how much it’s gotten into our lives, it was in service of real-life relationships more often than not and rather than the other way around.
And this is something that Tim Carney has written about. It’s something that I’ve tweeted about in the past. But there is a real benefit to using these social media devices if you’re going to be connecting with people, eventually, whether it’s reconnecting with people you used to know in real life or even using social media, I know I’ve found real-life friends on Twitter who are now my good friends and come over to my house for dinner. And it seems to me that’s a very positive thing.
But on the flip side, we’ve all seen and probably more often than we’d like to admit been the person who is literally at a dinner with friends on the phone or you see couples sitting in a restaurant and they’re both checking their phones instead of talking to each other.
I mean, don’t you think that at some point especially with the introduction of the smartphone and the way that we can carry social media with us at all times and the way that it’s structured in terms of pinging us all the time which you can change, but the default is that it pings you all the time and alerts you to attention all the time. You don’t think that that life has a danger of overwhelming real life in unhealthy ways?
I mean, maybe it does but so did … this was something that was said of having the television on all the time or during dinner or having the radio on all the time. In my book, I found countless examples of newspapers in particular hating the idea that anyone would spend their time instead of reading a newspaper or listening to the radio, watching television and all this dramatic, “we’ll never have human interaction again because people will just be listening to things or watching things.” And they were warned of how alienating it would be to have these other forms of communication.
So, I have all of that in mind when we talk about these same things because a lot of people are using social media to communicate with other people. I mean, you’re right, it’s odd to sit around with actual human beings and have everybody in their phones. It’s a weird thing. It can be very unhealthy. I mean, I’m perfectly happy to discuss whatever strategies we have for making healthier choices about putting our phones away sometimes. I totally support that.
I mean, I expect that people are probably using these technologies because they want to and it makes them happy, not because they’re mindless and have no self-control. And the technology has totally hacked our brains and we’re not free autonomous individuals anymore. I just don’t really buy that.
I mean, even younger. There are some young people that they’re lonely and they don’t have friends and maybe they don’t get along with their siblings. The nerdy kids, they can find communities of gamers and musical people and things like that. There’s a lot of upsides to it. It can be bad, but I’m not seeing the panic, which is why I’m arguing against it.
I absolutely think parents should be cognizant of what their young people are doing on social media and should set reasonable limits. When I was a kid, I was only allowed to play an hour of video games a day. I would be kicked off AOL Instant Messenger just like you when my parents thought I’d been on it for too long.
That was healthy and those choices should absolutely still be made and should still devolve to parents. Then the implication of what we’re talking about is, well, should the government do something about it? And I don’t really know what they could do about it that is going to necessarily withstand some kind of like First Amendment challenge. And I don’t see the point.
Let’s talk about I think the issue that’s most concerning to the right in all of this, which is the censorship, the censorship issue. And you don’t dispute here that, at least for the most part, that folks on the right and then increasingly some part of the dissident left that isn’t really on the Joe Biden train or on the sort of establishment-left train, but essentially people from the parts of the political spectrum that are not in power, whether that’s on the left or the right.
You don’t dispute that they are getting censored on these apps, but you do make what I think is a really good point. And you alluded to it in the beginning when we started talking. But it’s easy to forget what came before social media, which was the three networks, Maybe, Plus, Fox, where there was much tighter gatekeeper control over information, which I think is a really good point you make.
But don’t you think we’re moving back towards that situation? Like a three-network type situation where information that doesn’t fall into a mainstream narrative is increasingly difficult to access or require? Because I don’t think anyone is saying we should eliminate social media altogether, but you don’t worry about the same kind of problems developing in social media that did develop in the consolidation of the networks?
Well, I do worry about it. I mostly worry about it because the government, particularly the Biden administration, seems increasingly inclined to dictate to social media companies what their policies should be. And those companies are not really being courageous at all. They’re saying, “Okay. Whatever you want, don’t hurt us.”
Although I would say they don’t really have anyone in their corner legislatively because maybe in a different era, Republicans would have … and Republicans have criticized that specific aspect of it. But I feel like they don’t think they have a lot of political allies. And then they have to fear their own employees and they have a lot of different problems. But my fear is mostly from the government end.
And that is the end that we can do something about, the marriage of big tech and big government is a huge problem. But theoretically, at least we can change the policies of the big government. It is the harder and more indirect path to do something to change the policies of these companies that are private companies.
And I still think that, if I’m looking at the landscape for what I call non-liberal speech, just exactly what you described — conservative, very conservative right-wing and then also contrarian, provocative, and some lefty dissident type stuff. And I’m looking, overall, the landscape for it. It looks pretty solid and pretty healthy to me. I haven’t seen a great contraction of it despite the frequent bad moderation decisions.
It seems like the ecosystem is still thriving. The top articles on Facebook are very often pieces of content produced by Ben Shapiro or Dan Bongino or Tucker Carlson or a bunch of other very conservative media content creators that seemed to be thriving.
So, it is perfectly fine to be wary. And I think the Biden administration has given us additional reason to be wary. What I am still seeing is that, broadly speaking, you can run into trouble, you can get deplatformed arbitrarily, it does happen to people but it still seems like we’re living through a golden age of being able to communicate these ideas to vast numbers of people.
And I mean, you acknowledge this, but we have to be really careful about messing that up because if anything, the hostility of the mainstream media to non-liberal ideas has increased exponentially. The New York Times will never consider running an op-ed from a Republican senator ever again. That is their level of bias. And they hate social media most of all.
So it’s like the enemy of my enemy is, well, maybe they’re not my friend but I have to be really careful if I try to hurt them because my enemy really wants that.
Yeah. And I do think you make a … it is a good admonition I think especially for those of us who are really concerned about this whole phenomenon to remember what this situation is like without these democratizing, small d, democratizing elements.
The fact that you point to that there is a ton of conservative content that’s doing very, very well on Facebook and that Facebook has given essentially voices outside of the mainstream and ability to reach people that was completely nonexistent before these social media companies and social media generally became a primary place to have public square-type discussions.
So, I do think that’s a good admonition. But I guess another thing I agree with you on, but I guess it scares me in a different way, is I see the same collusion developing between government and these companies. But what I’m really worried about as I see increasingly it’s being used and not just in the tech space, but generally in the private sector, it’s being used to get things done for government that the Constitution would prevent the government directly from doing.
So, the federal government obviously cannot directly censor citizens. The First Amendment forbids that. They can’t take any action that would censor citizens. But what they can do is drag some of these guys into a hearing and nod, nod, wink, wink, “We are extremely disappointed in you that you allow Donald Trump or whomever to continue proliferating “misinformation” on your platform.”
And they get the message. They get the threat, the implied threat there. And they get the message. And it works even outside of the tech context. I have a sideways theory of the vaccine mandate that the Biden administration is still in the process of rolling out. Essentially announcing that mandate was a bat signal to Corporate America to go ahead and enforce that, which they largely have started. That’s why we have this whole southwest mess and all of that.
Corporate America has largely started independently enforcing this vaccine mandate even though the mandate doesn’t exist yet. It hasn’t been rolled out. And depending on how they roll it out, it likely is going to have massive legal problems and may very well be struck down constitutionally. And yet, that bat signal has already gone out, that threat has already been leveled, that nod, nod, wink, wink which is half-threaten, half just ‘the right people think this way.’
And the same type, they have a monoculture between the government and these corporations that makes it very, very difficult for people who might disagree to fight back versus when they’re fighting back directly against government where we do have a system that protects their individual liberties through the Constitution.
Yeah. I mean, it’s very bad. If you live under kind of Blue authority, if your rulers are Team Blue, then you are going to be forced to have a vaccine mandate. If you live under sort of Team Red rules and Red authorities, you might be prohibited from having a vaccine mandate. And I’m over here like, “Maybe we could just let individuals and individual firms and communities of people and groups who are voluntarily in each other’s business and socializing. They can set what the rules would be.”
But like, “No, it has to take place in this very bitter political struggle where everything must be forced or prohibited.” And it’s very unhealthy and very bad. Maybe we disagree on this, I feel like there are certainly private entities that are now going to have vaccine mandates that wouldn’t have necessarily had them before because they feel like they’re not ideological enough to make some kind of stand.
Or they might have implemented a vaccine mandate but had some more reasonable opt-out for people who like … they don’t tell people, “We really want you to get vaccinated. You should really get vaccinated.” And they won’t absolutely enforce it or they might allow, which would be the most reasonable provision of all which is just to exempt people who have a prior infection who we now know from the data are reasonably protected. We don’t know if it’s a little bit better, a little bit worse than vaccine but it looks pretty good to me.
And again, why the Biden administration didn’t think to do that to make their mandate even more practical or pragmatic, I don’t know. But anyway, so yeah, your broader point I take. I don’t like the monoculture, either. But a lot of these, we’re focusing on the last part of the last link in a very long chain. Well, why do companies like Facebook do some of the things they do, retaliate against conservative speech?
Well, it’s not really that Mark Zuckerberg feels that way as far as I can tell. It’s that some of the employees at his company are the woke-type activist people who are utterly demanding these changes. And a lot of companies in a lot of places, in media environments, communication companies, they’re caving to appease very unreasonable baby-type people who were produced by this dreadful education system.
So then if we talk about what big policy changes should we go forward with to address this problem, I’d be like, “We should target the education system in some way.” Again, that’s the thing we can actually do. Government funding of education can be changed, theoretically. So that makes more sense to me. So, how can we hit these companies now? It’s too late to do anything. It’s very kind of a fraught process.
So we should just push back as much as we can if government is making them do things and they are, and that sort of thing. And I also wish more Republicans on Capitol Hill were making the point that there ought to be this difference. And often what you’re hearing in these tribunals for Facebook, for Mark Zuckerberg endorsing others, it’s like, “Well, don’t follow their rules, follow our rules.”
And then these hearings end up being tremendously frustrating because no one knows what they’re talking about. And it’s clear that like what is the company supposed to decide when this group of people are yelling at them for these reasons, this group of people are yelling at them for these reasons? No one’s going to agree except there’s going to be regulation, that’s probably going to be bad.
That Facebook even supports! That’s the other part of this Facebook is come out in favor of some reforms that I think would certainly hurt Twitter more than Facebook. So then you have to look at it in cronyous sort of way, which are they making the calculation that, “Well, if we’re going to be regulated, better be our regulations and we’ll be in charge of it. And we’ll have this revolving door between our company and government. And we’ll know all the people on the committee that decide this liability protection. And that will be bad for our competitors,” in a very classic cronyous sort of way.
What about the multinational character of these companies because most of these companies are not … they’re not just operating in the United States. They’re obviously global companies. And we’ve seen battles between essentially an enormously powerful multinational company and the government, the nation of a particular so we’ve seen it in Australia, I believe.
We’ve definitely seen it, obviously, the Chinese Communist Party throws its weight behind and essentially says, “You’re not going to operate in our market unless you follow these rules that help the CCP censor information to our own people.” And most tech companies, although Facebook notably accepted, I think have been happy to follow those rules. Even as they complain about working, for example, with the U.S. military, they’re happy to follow those rules for the CCP.
But do you fear that these companies could become powerful enough that maybe not perhaps in the context of like China or the United States, but if you’re a smaller country that you essentially don’t have that national power to regulate or to change how a company does business as part of a polity deciding on what rules that society wants to follow? Do you worry about this multinational character of some of these companies and that their power might eventually dwarf the power especially of smaller nations to actually engage with them?
Toward the end of my book, I talk about national security which there’s a category where I think if regulation is necessary, it’s more appropriate, I think our government has a legitimate … the legitimate function of our government is to deter violence internally and protect the country from external threats of violence.
Obviously, these companies are making some … some of these calls are very difficult. Obviously, they make the calls wrong, I think, a decent amount of the time. So Google, for instance, they had a version of Google for China that is censored where you can’t find out information contrary to the wishes of the authoritarian communist government.
And I would turn this question to you. I think it’s a hard question even from the standpoint of let’s forget Google’s bottom line which at the end of the day is really what matters most to them. Just from the standpoint of what is better for freedom and society, would we rather have no Google in China or the censored version of Google?
Obviously, you can make a case. We should not negotiate with authoritarian regimes. Absolutely not. It is totally wrong to meet this demand and Google should not do it. And maybe we should even prohibit Google from doing it. I understand that argument. There’s also an argument that then the people of China will have access just to even less information. That is who is being hurt by this policy, the people of China.
It would be better to give them some version of Google than no version of Google. Obviously, the ideal is to give them a version of Google that is not censored whatsoever but we can’t do that. So, we give them the version we can. And then maybe they still become a more … from also being able to read about some things that the government hasn’t censored, they become a more liberal or democratic or free nation.
And somehow, there’s some kind of gradual revolution or reforming of the government’s policies. I don’t know where I land on that. I think it’s a legitimately hard call. And I don’t really blame Google for being unsure about which way they should do it. So there are some really genuinely difficult questions.
I write about it in the book, Facebook is this very, very, very, very important communication platform in a lot of places in the world. Facebook is the internet. And that can be good because people who don’t have the internet at all, it’s bad for them, like the introduction of the internet is good. It’s like the introduction of the wheel. You learn a lot. Your life is a lot better in many ways.
But then also so for instance in Myanmar where there was this mini genocide going on because the legitimate government of Myanmar used Facebook to initiate a genocide of the Muslim minority population and Facebook had no idea what was going on because it didn’t have anyone in the company who spoke the language, and it was really bad.
I’m perfectly willing to consider what government can do or should do in its responsibility to our citizens and to protect lives and to promote human freedom and flourishing. Unlike some of the other things we just talked about where I really don’t see a role for government in an ideological and pragmatic sense, here I’m saying, “Okay, what do we need to do?” But then I don’t actually know what that is or think that necessarily anyone else does either.
And just to wrap up that point, we ought to be careful because obviously what authoritarian places like China do to their communications company is aggressively regulate them and tell them what they’re allowed to say. We say we’re doing it for the right reasons and the right concerns but we ought to be careful that we don’t … I mean, they also think they’re doing it for the right reasons.
Every person has that, “Well, I’m bossing them around. I’m using the ring for good.” But using the ring is always an act of evil. Lord of the Rings metaphor here obviously.
I can tell you, you played a lot of video games as a kid. But everybody in DC is full of Lord of the Rings references.
We’re aware of the many dungeons of dragons’ circles that surround the groups of people we hang out with.
Yeah. Speaking of China and of these complicated questions of … and I agree with you, at least until recently, I guess my perspective is much more cynical as to whether these companies actually advance liberalization in a place like China.
I think that thesis with regard to economics has been proven largely completely the opposite of … probably the opposite thing happened which is that their economic growth enabled their increasing projection of their values of the CCP both on their own people and on the world, as opposed to creating liberalization that we thought would open up the country and have them join in a more productive sense with the rest of the world.
But speaking of China and these companies, one of the biggest fears or one of the biggest problems … and I agree with you that this is complicated. And I don’t know exactly what a legislative fix for this would look like or if there is a legislative fix because it seems to me the legislative fixes are very heavy-handed, perhaps justified, perhaps not.
But what we’re seeing develop even outside of tech companies because I think there’s a lot of validity to your arguments that you’ve made, both in the book and in various debates that you’ve been a part of that I’ve listened to with folks who are in favor of regulating big tech. And that fundamental argument is you don’t have a right to a Twitter account.
This is not part of your First Amendment right. This is not how we’ve traditionally conceived of your right to speak. You don’t get to use somebody’s platform in the same way that you don’t get to force somebody to sell you the paper and the ink to write down what you want. Or you don’t get to force the publisher to publish your book. They have to decide what they want to use their platform to publish.
But when you do start to get this monoculture, not just between all of the different tech companies, of course, this is in the context of the tech companies, it looks like Donald Trump not just getting kicked off of Twitter or getting kicked off of Facebook, and Twitter and Instagram and Twitch and a thousand other social media sites specifically.
But even beyond the social media context, when it starts to bleed into other aspects, it seems to me there’s a more fundamental “collusion” that isn’t really covered by our antitrust law because it’s not economic collusion to try to drive up the price for the customer, right?
It’s not really in dollars-and-cent’s terms to harm the customer. So our antitrust law, at least as currently constituted, doesn’t cover something like this. But what you do as a cultural coordination where, as you say, the vast majority of employees who work at these corporations, they have a particular political point of view. And not only that, they think that those who disagree with them about a whole host of issues are deplorables and their voices are dangerous and lead to domestic insurrection or whatever else.
And they feel they have a duty to suppress those ideas or that information. And what ends up happening is all of these independent companies that allegedly do represent competition in a given market start to look like they’re all turning down, in this case, the use, and the customer base and the ad revenue. But in a more traditional case might be just the dollars where you go to the hardware store to spend to buy something.
They look like they’re turning down those dollars in favor of maintaining a united front on a cultural issue. And that starts to look to me, not to compare the effects necessarily but in terms of the structure of how private entities are operating in this way, starts to look to me a little bit more like the situation in the south before the Civil Rights Act where even if you don’t have de jure laws where you don’t have in some places actual segregation laws that are coming from the government, what happens is all the hotels from Florida to Texas decide, “We’re excluding this entire base of customers.”
And that’s where you get the sort of Green Book situation where you have to really work hard to find any minor company that might be willing to actually give you this service because all of the major companies and, together, they represent nearly all of the market share. They have this cultural belief that they’re enforcing that is excluding customers.
Right. Well, but they’re excluding customers. The customers don’t pay. Users don’t pay to use Facebook or Twitter, etcetera. The way that companies make money is selling advertisements. So, in some sense, what they’re doing … I mean again, sometimes they’re doing these things because they’re dodging complaints from some of their crazy employees.
So that’s some of it and I think that’s bad. And we could empower the companies I guess to be more heavy to fire those people. I take more of like a Netflix, the Chappelle that whole thing attitude. But some of it is just like, look, they’re selling ads on a certain kind of … this is what our service is like. And you should advertise in this curated space we’ve created. And advertisers want people of a certain age and those people have disproportionately progressive views.
I don’t know that they’re, say, it would be better for them from a market perspective to have these other…. I mean, Facebook is becoming Boomer book because it’s all old people who like to use it and it’s going to be really bad for the company. One of the arguments I’ve been making recently for the reason not to fear Facebook’s dominance is I’m not sure its dominance is all that dominant in the long term because they can’t attract the new young user that they want.
But that’s what these companies are. That’s how they make money. They’re not charging you. They’re making money off these advertisements. So, at some point, you would have to say, “Well, I guess they don’t have the right to do that. We have to handle them differently.” The Trump example is pretty … for almost his entire presidency, they do have them on all these platforms.
Twitter was repeatedly sued by people who argued that they should take Trump’s content down because of the harm it was creating. And Twitter cited this Section 230. This law, Trump has tweeted about that it should be abolished which doesn’t make any sense. But they cited that as a reason they could keep him up on the platform.
I think far from treating him unfairly, they probably gave him more leniency than they would have someone else who had tweeted some of the things he had said. And you’re right. At the very end, they had finally had enough and they took him down. I can’t fault the decision in the moment. If it were me running things, I would probably reinstate him in the fullness of time which I think they have committed to doing.
But I hear this a lot from the like, “It should be like a public utility and then they can’t do this sort of thing.” But things that are public utilities can have some rules. You can be thrown off a train for starting a fight with someone for generally, like, bad conduct.
So I think some of these cases, that case including was a case of generally bad conduct that I cannot fault the social media company for taking some action on. Even everyone who says it should be the most maximally free speech, unregulated regime. No one actually wants that in practice. Everyone wants some level of moderation.
I was having this conversation with Jason Miller who’s launching some new … on rising which I was guest hosting. And he was launching or has launched some new social media sites. And he’s like, “No, this is going to be the free speech site. You can really say whatever.” And I said, “Well, what about harassment and pornography and spam and all these things?” “Well, none of this. None of this. Absolutely, we’re not going to have that.”
There will always come some point where it’s like, “Well, but is this piece of content this or is it this? On what line does it fall?” And different human beings will make a different call. And we’re going to have to learn to live with that because there will always be cases of moderation that are contentious.
Now, I think some of them are not contentious and they made bad … the Hunter Biden thing was a terrible call on social media’s part. It was so bad of a call they admitted it was the wrong call the next day or shortly thereafter, at least. So, it’s incumbent on us as independent fact-checker-type people to criticize the bad decisions they make. But some of these decisions are genuinely hard.
And the whole, “Well, no, it should just be according to this very broad free speech principle,” but people do want some level of moderation. That is the user experience a lot of users actually do want. And that’s what they’re trying to get them.
I totally agree with you that people do want some level of moderation and that we just agree about what that level should be. But what worries me is that it isn’t really this … because I think the way you represented it, it’s that each of these actors, various different tech companies, they’re all sort of making these tough calls.
And that aspect of it is true and that they’re doing it substantially differently. And that it is something more like the normal debate in society. I mean, even off of social media, we have boundaries on what’s considered acceptable speech. And I’ve made this point multiple times before on this pod.
But it’s never been good for your career to show up to work with wearing a Nazi armband even before “cancel culture” which is what your first book was about. People were getting fired for showing up or advocating something so far out of what was considered acceptable discourse that private companies were taking or basically saying, “No, we don’t want to represent this view to our customers and we’re not going to permit you to work for us.”
I think what is worrying now more to me is not that there are boundaries around discourse, but who is setting them and the fact that all of these people involved whether that’s on the government regulatory side as you point out or whether that’s the people who are in the C-suite and then to some extent, the people who are coming up behind them and the employees of these organizations, these private companies.
My problem is they all come out with very similar answers to that question. And it strikes me that having that group of people essentially in charge of what the boundaries of discourse are by virtue of together. And I understand economically, they don’t have, they’re not one unit. But culturally, they kind of are.
And so we have such similar views on this that I feel like we’re handing instead of having this societal debate about where the boundaries of appropriate discourse are and the difference between spam or pornography and unpopular opinion, I don’t think those things have black and white answers but I’m worried about who’s in the discussion to make those decisions because it seems to me right now, it’s only people who essentially really agree with each other already about where those boundaries are.
Well, I think I’m more agree with you than disagree, but there are some differences in how like for instance, pornography is allowed on Twitter, not on Facebook platforms. So there are some differences …
To Ted Cruz’s internal lament. That little like that I assumed an intern liked accidentally the porn thing. Anyway, continue with your much more serious points.
There’s differences in terms of … so Twitter is I think disproportionately important to the you-and-I class of people, the DC-New York Politico, journalism type. Journalists love Twitter; it’s their favorite platform. I’m one of them. Twitter is my favorite platform. Absolutely get it. It speaks to us in some way. It’s hard to say exactly what it like.
You and I are the same age, so we’ve had the same like AOL Instant Messenger was very important to me. Then MySpace was very important to me. And then Facebook was, but I don’t really care that much about Facebook now. It’s not somewhere I like to spend a lot of time. I do like to spend a lot of time on Twitter. And I like Instagram and I don’t really get TikTok and Snapchat. That’s just my natural social media evolution.
A lot of people my age probably have a similar evolution, but then a lot of people are different. A lot of people really congregate…. I mean Facebook is obviously much, much, much bigger and has this both I think within our own country is a space for political conversations among people not involved in politics and then also a place for just conversations in general in developing parts of the world.
So, maybe the moderation or the sentiments behind the sites are somewhat similar, but they still seem sort of spontaneously curated spaces or spaces for different groups of people to have kind of different norms. And then when it gets to enforcement, maybe it’s similar but it’s not always like that you’re going to generally encounter … you’re going to encounter relatives saying semi-crazy things sometimes about politics more on.
So that’s where I’m going to find that kind of thing on Facebook. I don’t really want to see that kind of thing that much. It doesn’t matter to me so I’m on Twitter. So many moderation decisions go like, “Well, why is this X piece of content still on? Y piece of content got taken down? And Y the one still up appears to violate the rules much more than the one they took down?” This is the kind of hypocrisy.
And I’m hugely motivated by hypocrisy arguments so I get it. But it’s usually just that, well, they didn’t see the other thing yet. They’re not reviewing all this stuff and then deciding what is allowed to go on the site. A world without Section 230 might be a world where they did that. Like YouTube, there’s a gazillion new hours of video every minute. There’s no way they can watch it all and then say, “Well, this is accordance with our rules. This is going to go up.”
So, I actually think if it looks like the moderation is similar, it’s because there’s probably a small or bigger on some platforms group of like militant-woke people who report the same kinds of content on Twitter and on YouTube and on Facebook. And then conservatives say, “Well, why is this disproportionately targeting us?” “Well, you’re probably not flagging that much content.”
Their ideology demands that they report people for saying and doing the wrong thing. So, they’re out there doing that and then action is being taken, but it’s not bias as much on the part of the moderators but bias on the part of the user base that is hostile to speech, if that makes sense.
Yeah. I think one of the most important points that you really remind us about in this book is not just the importance of social media to advancing unpopular ideas, but also that a lot of the problems that we find in social media are extensions of problems we find in ourselves and human nature.
And I do agree with you. Even though we’ve been having this sort of lively pushback or whatever for the last 45 minutes, I do agree with you that we should be careful not to conflate problems of human nature that are largely unsolvable and will pop up in all kinds of contexts with problems that are specifically derivative of social media and of this new technology. And we shouldn’t conflate those two things and get panicked about them.
But Robby Soave, standing athwart panic yelling stop always.
Thank you so much for having me.
Thank you for coming on. And you can check out Robby’s book Tech Panic: Why We Shouldn’t Fear Facebook or the Future, as well as his first book, Panic Attack, and his writing reporting over at Reason.com. And thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum.
As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected]. Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org, all those tech companies. Be brave, and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.