Claims of “cancel culture” seems to be everywhere these days. Almost every day, we seem to hear somebody complaining that they have been “canceled” from social media, and pretty much inevitably there is an accompanying claim of politically biased motives for the action.
The term “cancel culture” itself appears to have been pretty much unknown until several years ago, and seems to have morphed from the term “call-out culture” — which ironically is generally concerned with someone getting more publicity than they desire, rather than less.
Be that as it may, cancel culture complaints — the lions’ share of which emanate from the political right wing — are now routinely used to lambaste social media and other Internet firms, to assert that their actions are based on political statements with which the firms do not agree and (according to these accusations) seek to suppress.
However, even a casual inspection of these claims suggest that the actual issues in play are hate speech, violent speech, and dangerous misinformation and disinformation — not political viewpoints, and formal studies reinforce this observation, e.g. False Accusation: The Unfounded Claim that Social Media Companies Censor Conservatives.
Putting aside for now the fact that the First Amendment does not apply to other than government actions against speech, even a cursory examination of the data reveals — confirmed by more rigorous analysis — not only that right-wing entities are overwhelmingly the source of most associated dangerous speech (though they are by no means the only source, there are sources on the left as well), but conservatives overall still have prominent visibility on social media platforms, dramatically calling into question the claims of “free speech” violations overall.
Inexorably intertwined with this are various loud, misguided, and dangerous demands for changes to (and in some cases total repeal of) Communications Decency Act Section 230, the key legislation that makes all forms of Internet UGC — User Generated Content — practical in the first place.
And here we see pretty much equally unsound proposals (largely completely conflicting with each other) from both sides of the political spectrum, often apparently based on political motives and/or a dramatic ignorance of the negative collateral damage that would be done to ordinary users if such proposals were enacted.
The draconian penalties associated with various of these proposals — aimed at Internet firms — would almost inevitably lead not to the actually desired goals of the right or left, but rather to the crushing of ordinary Internet users, by vastly reducing (or even eliminating entirely) the amount of their content on these platforms — that is, videos they create, comments, discussion forms, and everything else users want to share with others.
The practical effect of these proposals would be not to create more free speech or simply reduce hate and violent speech, misinformation and disinformation, but to make it impractical for Internet platforms to support user content — which is vast in scale beyond the imagination of most persons — in anything like the ways it is supported today. The risks would just be too enormous, and methodologies to meet the new demanded standards — even if we assume the future deployment of advanced AI systems and vast new armies of proactive moderators — do not exist and likely could never exist in a practical and affordable manner.
This is truly one of those “be careful what you wish for” moments, like asking the newly-released genie to “fix social media” and with a wave of his hand he eliminates the ability of anyone in the public — prominent or not, on the right or the left — to share their views or other content.
So as we see, complaints about social media are being driven largely by highly political arguments, but in reality invoke enormously complex technical challenges at gigantic scales — many of which we don’t even fundamentally understand given the toxic political culture of today.
As much as nobody would likely argue that Section 230 is perfect, I have yet to see any realistic proposals to change it that would not make matters far worse — especially for ordinary users who largely don’t understand how much they have to lose in these battles.
Like democracy itself, which has been referred to as “the worst possible system of governance, except for all the others” — buying into the big lie of cancel culture and demands to alter Section 230 is wrong for the Internet and would be terrible for its users.