Will Section 230 be reformed, and if so, what will that mean for digital media more broadly?
After months of calls for reforms to internet protection laws, today, the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google all faced a US Senate Committee hearing which sought to establish the parameters for a possible re-think of Section 230 laws, which, technically, provide a level of protection for digital platforms over the content posted by users.
Kind of. First, before looking at today’s discussion, which honestly didn’t seem to progress anything, let’s take a look at the actual wording of Section 230 to understand what, precisely, is at stake.
The specific regulation in question is this:
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”
The key element in this instance is the provider part – the law states that no web service provider will be treated as the publisher with respect to what users post. That means, for example, that if someone on Twitter says something defamatory about you, you can’t sue Twitter for hosting that content.
As noted, in recent months, this has become a key point of debate, most specifically because of Twitter’s decision back in June to add a warning label to these tweets.
….living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there, will get one. That will be followed up with professionals telling all of these people, many of whom have never even thought of voting before, how, and for whom, to vote. This will be a Rigged Election. No way!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2020
In response, US President Donald Trump accused Twitter of bias, adding to previous concerns he had raised about social platforms potentially restricting conservative speech.
A few days later, Trump got the ball rolling on the push for a change to the law, which eventually lead to a White House Executive Order calling for the review of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 29, 2020
Which has lead us to here, with Zuck, Dorsey and Pichai appearing before the Senate. But as with the lead-up, much of the proceedings seemed more aligned with pushing an agenda, as opposed to genuine discussion about the technicalities of the law.
Several Senators took the opportunity to criticize Dorsey over Twitter’s actions to, in their view, censor conservatives unfairly. Dorsey was given various examples of other world leaders who’ve violated Twitter’s rules, but haven’t seen punishment, while Trump has had warnings added to his tweets.
Senator Ted Cruz went on the full offensive:
“Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear, and why do you persist in behaving as a Democratic super pac, silencing views to the contrary of your political beliefs.”
Cruz was specifically referring to a recent New York Post story about Presidential Candidate Joe Biden’s son and his business dealings. The report has been largely criticized for its factual inaccuracies, which lead to both Twitter and Facebook initially moving to halt sharing of the article. But Twitter actually stopped people sharing the report based on its Hacked Materials Policy, not based on misinformation. Twitter has since reversed its decision, and users can no share the article freely, but many saw those initial responses as censorship, and they took the opportunity to raise the issue with Dorsey personally,
Which many have speculated was the actual purpose of today’s session, at least in the view of some Senators. With just days till the election, the emphasis appeared to be on trying to scare both Twitter and Facebook into holding off on blocking the circulation of certain reports, which may be classified as misinformation, in the lead up to polling day.
Indeed, Pichai saw little questioning, and Dorsey copped the brunt of the discussion.
For their part, the platforms argued that paring back Section 230 protections could harm free expression on the internet, and could stop platforms from undertaking critical work “such as removing hate speech and harassment that impacts the safety and security of their communities”.
Zuckerberg did note that Section 230 should be updated to ensure that “it’s working as intended”, but as noted, there was little discussion on the detail in today’s session. The Judiciary Committee will analyze the same regulation on November 17th.
Given the lack of clear progress in the session, it’s still too early to say what could happen to the open web if indeed Section 230 laws are changed.
If anything, evidence points to the fact that right-leaning publications and Pages actually get more reach via social networks than left-leaning publishers, despite the suggestions of restriction, so the broader push on reforming the law to protect Conservative speech seems misguided, and likely won’t result in the outcome those calling for change expect.
But an updated Section 230 would have impacts. What exactly they might be, we won’t know until some real proposals are put in place, but it could have wide-reaching impacts for how platforms moderate content, and the effort required to do so. And that could limit competition, making it more difficult for smaller players to get in.
Right now, the direction isn’t clear, but the debate will continue on for some time yet.
Meta Will Shut Down its Newsletter Platform Early Next Year
Another sign of Meta’s fleeting interest in the latest trends, the company launched Bulletin in April 2021, as part of an effort to take a piece of the growing newsletter market, with platforms like Substack seeing massive growth in facilitating direct connection between writers and their audiences. Twitter also acquired newsletter platform Revue, and it had seemed, at the time, that newsletters could offer a new, supplementary income stream for creators, aligned with social apps.
In addition to this, Meta also saw an opportunity to provide a platform for local publications that had been shut down due to the pandemic. With ad dollars from local businesses drying up, due to lockdown measures, many smaller publications had to shut down, and Meta viewed this as a chance to make Facebook an even more critical element of community engagement, by providing a direct pathway for independent journalists to serve their audiences through the app.
As part of its initial push, Meta allocated $5 million in funding for local publications to convert to Bulletin instead.
And it sort of worked. Bulletin, at last at one stage, supported over 115 publications, with more than half of the creators on the platform reaching over 1,000 subscribers.
But this year, amid tougher market conditions, Meta lost interest.
The company has been gradually scaling back its investment in news and original content in recent months. Back in July, The Wall Street Journal reported that Meta had reallocated resources from both its Facebook News tab and Bulletin, in order to ‘heighten their focus on building a more robust Creator economy’
In other words, Reels – Meta’s main investment focus for the future of the Creator Economy is short-form video content, which drives more views, more engagement, and is the big trend that Meta’s chasing right now.
As a result, Meta says that it will shut down Bulletin by early next year.
As per Meta:
“Bulletin has allowed us to learn about the relationship between Creators and their audiences and how to better support them in building their community on Facebook. While this off-platform product itself is ending, we remain committed to supporting these and other Creators’ success and growth on our platform.”
So long as they create Reels, I guess.
Again, the decision here is no surprise, but it does serve as another reminder that Meta chases whatever trends it can, and it has no real, long-term commitment on any of its new pushes.
Video is the thing, as it has been several times before, and Meta will keep pushing that till audiences lose interest. Then it’ll be something else that Meta’s pitching to brands, publishers, users, etc.
Logically, Meta follows the latest trends in order to maximize the benefit of such within its tools. But it is worth noting that, when it does lose interest, it tends to move on entirely, leaving anyone who’s invested in its last whim out in the cold.
Overall, Bulletin isn’t huge, and it won’t impact a heap of writers and publishers, as such. But even so, for those that have invested in the platform, in good faith, it’s a bitter pill, and while they will now be able to move on to other platforms as well, it’s good to remind yourself that Meta chases trends, and moves on quick.
‘Don’t build on rented land’. ‘Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket’. Don’t trust social platforms to keep supporting that feature or platform that you’ve come to rely on.
The closure of Bulletin may seem like a side note to many, but it’s an important reminder that you need to diversify your strategy to avoid such impacts.
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