Opinion

Social Media Needs Better Solutions Than Just Banning Bad Actors

Alex Jones deserved it. Donald Trump really deserved it. And now Marjorie Taylor Greene? She double deserves it.

Like it or not, the toxic trio of the social media age, all of them promiscuous Twitter rule breakers, have now all been banned from the social media platform, as well as garnered both permanent and temporary suspensions from the much bigger Facebook.

Their ignominious tenures and evictions finally ended what has become a tiresome game of whack-a-troll, except without any of the fun. For far, far too long, even as they were smashing up the place, such malicious actors were tolerated with almost no repercussions until — whack — off with their tweets.

Naturally, there was much hand-wringing about free speech violations and using the First Amendment as a fig leaf for the indignity of the day, which will no doubt serve as good fodder for accruing campaign funds and political capital on the right. Does it come as any surprise that Trump, the troller in chief, jumped right into the fray after Greene’s digital defenestration? “Twitter is a disgrace to democracy,” he wrote in a statement, and it “shouldn’t be allowed to do business in this country.” He seems to have forgotten Twitter was his favorite platform as president.

Disgrace or no, a private company like Twitter is well within its rights to allow or disallow anyone on its platform; in fact, by booting Greene or anyone else, Twitter is actually exercising those rights. (Remember “Corporations are people”?)

Greene’s banishment on Sunday, after repeated violations by posting misinformation about Covid, then warnings, then more violations, was consistent with Twitter’s longtime practice of allowing a loose leash on public officials and celebrities. By the way, her official congressional account remains active because it operates within guidelines that Twitter loudly announced and were well known to Greene.

In other words, Greene knew just what she was doing when she tweeted like a toxic banshee. And therein lies the problem: If you hand bad actors like Greene a megaphone, they will use and abuse it and then, when it gets taken away for their callous rule breaking, they will use that to prove a point of unfair censorship. It’s a perfect bug in the system, an ever-mutating virus, especially since it taps into our strong feelings about free speech in the United States and conflates the First Amendment with the rules of a private company.

Thus, they use the act of kicking people off Twitter or Facebook, however richly deserved, to fuel more anger among their followers, as well as conspiracy theories about how it’s all part of a coordinated campaign by tech giants to quash all speech. They toss around menacing terms like “collusion,” without a whiff of proof, when it’s more about these companies not wanting to be handmaidens to things like sedition and putting out health information that could risk lives.

And, of course, it’s deeply partisan: Those on the right say too many are being muzzled (they’re not), while those on the left say more misinformation needs to be removed (not as much as they think).

Greene is already capitalizing on her supposed plight. Far from being silenced, she decamped to the messaging app Telegram to continue her tireless goal of following the playbook of Trump — who was himself tossed off Twitter and Facebook for inciting violence related to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. On Telegram, Greene channeled America’s patron saint of prevarication, writing that “Twitter is an enemy to America and can’t handle the truth.” Funny, she didn’t mind using Twitter to spread lies before it took action against her.

It was all part of a tired routine: Get oneself worked up into a lather, spew manufactured bile designed to enrage and then repeat and repeat and repeat.

These unctuous, tweeting fabulists rode the digital rails as far as they could to their advantage, until it was a tweet too far. In his latest statement, Trump called for people to “drop off” — Donald, F.Y.I., the correct term is “delete” — Facebook and Twitter. Yes, there are myriad legitimate reasons to quit social media, but this isn’t one of them.

It is, however, yet another reminder of the desperate need for lawmakers to step up and address the overwhelming power of Big Tech.

Meanwhile, the podcaster, comedian and rabble-rouser Joe Rogan isn’t waiting to get tossed off before cashing in on the furor. He set up an account on Gettr, the social media site run by the former Trump adviser Jason Miller, saying it’s a safety net in case “Twitter gets even dumber.”

That turned into quite a boon for Rogan — and for Gettr’s subscriptions, too — who miraculously attracted 8.6 million followers in under two days. Over on Twitter, which he naturally used to tout the move, he has just 7.9 million followers.

Rogan may have been pushed to his edge — which at least feels more genuine, if misguided — by another Twitter ban, that of the controversial virologist Robert Malone, who claims to be the inventor of mRNA vaccines. (He’s more likely one of many key contributors to the critical technology.) Malone has been a vocal critic of the mass vaccination fervor, including on Rogan’s show, where he likened it to something from Nazi Germany. While we’re well past the time to retire the casual use of Hitler’s regime as a metaphor for everything (it’s a high bar of horror), the sentiment still lands with a certain audience whose mistrust of power has only grown during the pandemic.

Certainly, the various platforms have been woefully incompetent at monitoring content on their sites and at applying consistent rules of the road. There’s one set of rules for important people and another set of rules for regular people and still others for when the situation serves the companies’ needs at the time.

And some of it is just random to the point of rank incompetence. In real life, we all know what a stop sign means, even if we blow past one now and again, yet online it’s largely anything goes, until it doesn’t, which satisfies no one and confuses everyone.

The irony is that the social media companies wrote the script themselves. The Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen said she thought the firms have tried to wrap themselves in the Constitution when it suited them and are now caught between a rock and hard place when they use free speech rights to boot people from what is effectively their place of business. No truth, no following the rules, no service.

“Facebook has done a really good job of distracting us with the censorship debate. We are hotly arguing over ‘Should you take off the platform X, Y, Z content? Is there enough censorship, not enough censorship?’” Haugen told me in a recent interview on “Sway.” “The things we should be talking about are platform design choices.”

She’s referring to the fact that social media platforms are, at their essence, structured so that enragement attracts more engagement, or more time on the sites. Many think that design needs to be completely retooled to cool down the online temperature. Only that could begin the process of putting an end to the now endless cycle of misinformation campaigns, followed by milquetoast and delayed action from the social media companies and then inevitable claims of censorship.

Haugen ultimately is arguing for greater transparency from the social media platforms, which the companies spuriously claim they aim for as well. “We are not in a place where we can even really have conversations yet around how to remedy a bunch of these problems,” she told me. Maybe if we had more such conversations, whistle-blowers like her wouldn’t be necessary to enact real change.

Twitter, for its part, has tried to be more transparent with its publicly available misinformation policy. And no doubt monitoring all of its posts is a gargantuan task. In its announcement about Greene, the company said that she received a fifth “strike” — permanent suspension — when she posted falsely about “extremely high amounts of Covid vaccine deaths.”

Why five? Who knows? But a Twitter spokeswoman told The Times, “We’ve been clear that, per our strike system for this policy, we will permanently suspend accounts for repeated violations.”

But not clear enough, it seems. If the social media platforms can actually get to a point where their users understand the rules of the road — essentially where the stop signs are and what they mean — then maybe users will finally get wise to how characters like Greene are manipulating them.

But for now, she’s like that massive traffic accident on I-95 in Virginia — inescapable, bone-chilling and, most of all, an enormous waste of our time.

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