mark zuckerberg facebook senate hearing
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears remotely during a US Senate committee hearing (Image: PA/Nash Greg)

Big tech wants to be rescued from its content problem: hate speech and fake news, driven by bots and trolls gaming the algorithms and polluting the social media eco-system.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg repeated his plea to the US Senate in its hearings last night: save us from ourselves. Tell us what to do. Regulate us!

It makes a change from the usual corporate fulmination against red tape, but it shows the difference between the social media giants and the traditional media they’ve supplanted: these modern content channels don’t care what content they end up channelling.

As Zuckerberg said last night, we cannot easily transfer our understandings of old tech (newspapers, phones) to social media: “It deserves and needs its own regulatory framework”.

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Both the US parties seem happy to oblige. Should be an easy win for that much-loved US bi-partisanship trope. And Australia, as a rule-taker in global tech, will end up with the processes that the US regulators put in place, mediated through the continuing work of the e-Safety Commissioner.

But, hold on. Sure, both US parties want to regulate social media content. Both parties are keen to re-open the much discussed section 230 of the Clinton-era Communications Decency Act which provides immunity to big tech for content it distributes. Both Biden and Trump committed to reform during their election campaigns.

The problem — demonstrated again in last night’s hearings — is that the parties can’t agree what that regulation should look like. One side’s hate speech and fake news quickly morphs into the other’s freedom of speech. One side is more concerned about what posts are slipping through, the other about what is being held back.

The immediate prompt for last night’s hearings featuring Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was the actions of both companies to suppress the circulation of reports in the Murdochs’ New York Post about alleged emails allegedly from the laptop of Hunter Biden, son of now president-elect Joe Biden.

The inquiry by the Senate Judiciary Committee announced by the Republican majority pre-election was, officially, to examine “censorship, suppression and the 2020 elections”.

Much of the US right (including the Post’s sister media in the US and Australia) responded to the platforms’ actions with outrage, using cries of “censorship!” to funnel the stories on, to the extent that about half of social media users came to the story through the restrictions brouhaha, rather than the original reporting. (It’s odd for Australians to see News Corp attacking Facebook in Australia for “stealing” their content, while complaining about lack of co-operative distribution from the platform in the US.)

Under questions, Dorsey conceded they’d got it wrong, relying on policies restricting reports of hacked documents adopted after the 2016 election.

The Democrats focussed on Facebook’s “operational mistake” in allowing the right-wing militia behind the shooting of Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconson to organise in Facebook groups despite repeated warnings. Zuckerberg said the platform’s anti-militia policy was then new and moderators “had not yet been trained on that”.

Facebook’s heart seems never to have been in content moderation. It’s largely outsourced to underpaid moderators and it’s choice of fact-checking partners has been contentious. They seem structured to fail. It’s an unequal battle: the secretive algorithm powered by AI drives the outrage, restrained only by personal intervention by moderators and complainants.

The platforms have worked together with regulators in the past in for example, child sex abuse, pornography and terrorism. They reacted quickly in response to the Christchurch shooting.

But they’ve tip-toed around right-wing extremism in the US (and, to a lesser extent, here in Australia). It was only this past month, in an apparent pre-positioning for a Biden administration, that Facebook banned QAnon groups organised on the platform and Holocaust denial.

At the core of their nervousness? Trump. When a president promotes and legitimises fringe groups, it’s hard to stand up. Since the election, all the platforms seem to have found their backbone, with Facebook banning the mushrooming “Stop The Steal” group and Twitter regularly tagging Trump’s tweets as false.

The audience is responding. The Trumpian outrage about election fraud has bombed on social media since the election. Again, an initial strong performance condemned by rating failure.