Another Day, Another Ridiculous NY Times Opinion Piece That Is Confused About Section 230 And Free Speech Online

from the not-again dept

What is it with the NY Times publishing incredibly ridiculously wrong and confused articles and op-eds about Section 230? It's gotten to the point that you have to think that they're doing it on purpose. I've covered the NY Times getting 230 wrong (often in totally embarrassing ways) over and over and over and over and over again. And those are just examples from the past two years.

You'd think that maybe -- just maybe -- someone at the NY Times would now take the time to more carefully review any of their pieces on Section 230. But, apparently that's not in the cards for the NY Times. The latest entrant is Timothy Egan, a long term journalist and NY Times opinion writer, who doesn't seem to have any actual knowledge or experience regarding this topic. But apparently at the NY Times that makes you qualified to make grand pronouncements based on your feelings. The title of Egan's piece suggests that maybe it's going to present an interesting argument regarding free speech: I Used to Think the Remedy for Bad Speech Was More Speech. Not Anymore. I mostly disagree with this line, but there have been some interesting, and often thought-provoking arguments regarding this over the last few years.

But Egan's is a weirdly facile argument that suggests he's never had a chance to explore any of the deeper issues here, nor engage with any of the widespread scholarship on the topic. It presents the argument in a jumbled confusing mess... and then blames Section 230. All of it is wrong. He tries to lump in gun violence into this argument in a way that... I don't understand at all:

Just recently, we saw the malignancies of our premier freedoms on display in the mass shooting in Boulder, Colo. At the center of the horror was a deeply disturbed man with a gun created for war, with the capacity to kill large numbers of humans, quickly. Within hours of the slaughter at the supermarket, a Facebook account with about 60,000 followers wrote that the shooting was fake — a so-called false flag, meant to cast blame on the wrong person.

So it goes. Toxic misinformation, like AR-15-style weapons in the hands of men bent on murder, is just something we’re supposed to live with in a free society.

I know of no one, even among the most ardent free speech supporters, who say this is "just something we're supposed to live with." There are deep debates about all of this -- debates that Egan appears to not know about, nor even bothered to search up. There are studies, and conferences, and reports, and evidence, and books. All of which Egan ignores. Why bother? He's got NY Times column space, and dammit, he's going to spew disinformation and ignorance about how we need to derail free speech to combat disinformation and ignorance! It's the NY Times way!

Second, it's kind of meaningless to say that some idiot on Facebook published disinformation about the shooting if there's no evidence that that disinformation had any impact. Did it spread? Did it make a difference? That matters, because not all disinformation flows that far.

Egan then makes some simplistic and not very useful suggestions for how he would deal with disinformation online: First, teach both older people and younger people how to be better media consumers and to avoid disinformation online. This is a good idea. And it's also, um, the kind of "more speech" that he says doesn't work in the title to his piece.

His second idea is... kind of stunning when you realize it's being placed in the NY Times, a newspaper that has won some of the most important and free speech supporting defamation cases in American history: he suggests lots of defamation lawsuits:

Second, sue. What finally made the misinformation merchants on television and the web close the spigot on the Big Lie about the election were lawsuits seeking billions. Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic, two election technology companies, sued Fox News and others, claiming defamation.

Dominion and Smartmatic have stronger cases than most defamation cases we've seen, but they're hardly slam dunks. And note that, even though up until now he's been blaming the internet, the lawsuits he's talking about are not... against internet companies. But about cable news. Lumping them in together is not just lazy, but it obscures the actual relationship between disinformation, the internet, and cable news.

Also, importantly, the vast majority of disinformation out there is not defamatory and is absolutely protected by the 1st Amendment. Arguing that we should see more lawsuits for defamation is calling for mostly SLAPP suits to silence speech someone doesn't like. At no point should the NY Times be calling for more defamation lawsuits with only a vague argument that it will somehow stop disinformation. It won't. Most defamation lawsuits are used to try to intimidate and silence reporters. Not save democracy.

And then we get to Egan's third silly idea: dump Section 230. Why? Well, because Egan has bought into the myth (as published, and only later corrected, in the NY Times) that Section 230 is why there's disinformation online (it's not, that's the 1st Amendment).

Taking away their legal shield — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — is the strongest threat out there. Sure, removing social media’s immunity from the untruthful things said on their platforms could mean the end of the internet as we know it. True. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I mean, what the fuck? Eh, sure it'll end the internet as we know it, and I don't care because I'm a columnist for the NY Times. It just screams out "I'm a privileged asshole, and my life won't change one bit if these sites go away, so meh, how big a deal could it be." What a fucking asshole. Tons of people rely on the internet -- especially right now in the midst of a pandemic. And, Egan doesn't even make even the slightest attempt to distinguish the giant internet companies from everyone else (everyone else who would be much more impacted by the removal of 230). It's just a giant shrug.

Does he even try to remotely engage in what that world would look like? Nope. He just says maybe it won't be so bad. That's one hell of a shrug to base your entire argument on.

He then suggests that maybe lawmakers should use the threat of ditching 230 as a cudgel to force websites to moderate the way that Egan wants them to moderate. The problem here, again, is the 1st Amendment. Congress can't tell websites how to moderate, because that impacts expression. And there's that whole "make no law" bit.

Egan closes with this:

I still believe the truth may set us free. But it has little chance of surviving amid the babble of orchestrated mendacity.

Does that include the NY Times' ongoing orchestrated mendacity about Section 230 and online content moderation?

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Filed Under: 1st amendment, free speech, section 230, timothy egan
Companies: ny times


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  1. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2021 @ 12:53pm

    Defamation Law should be abolished instead

    Even the lawsuit against Alex Jones is such a stretch that they have zero chance of actually winning at trial, and those tend to be popular with those of us on the side of reality.

    Internet defamation tends to go like this:

    1. Well known person A says nasty things about person B.
    2. Person A's fans go after person B, usually including death threats.
    3. Person B sues person A.

    Just look at how wikipedia describes the lawsuit:

    "In March 2018, six families of Sandy Hook victims, and an FBI agent who responded to the attack, filed a defamation suit against Jones for spreading false claims, resulting in the harassment, stalking and threatening of survivors."

    And the rest of the paragraph just goes into how Jones shoots himself in the foot by refusing to follow court orders.


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