I don’t know if I should be proud or ashamed of being one of the Internet’s early adopters and advocates. My online experience started in the mid-1980s before the graphical user interface of the World Wide Web, and I started with a Commodore 64 and a 14.4 modem. (“Daddy, what’s a modem?”) I used FTP to visit “gopher holes” which would be accessed by one of two servers in the world, named Archie and Veronica.
A few years later America Online (AOL) had registered several hundred thousand users who were connected to a closed proprietary network. Many old-time Internet users complained in 1993 when AOL provided web access outside their network. “Here comes the flood of morons!” exclaimed the digitally savvy users.
Sadly, when we look at what a cesspool the Internet has become, they turned out to be mostly correct. Naïvely, I did not share that pessimism. In 1995 I won an award of excellence from the American Bar Association for writing a note titled “We Are All Gutenberg Now.” Being a free-speech advocate (not to mention a tin-horn law student), I saw the opportunity for the democratization of speech to change the world. In 1996 I led a nationwide protest against the Communications Decency Act which as written, was overbroad and would have made non-prurient discussions and illustrations of important issues such as breast cancer, STD treatment and awareness and the like illegal. I like to think this had a small role in the outcome of ACLU v. Reno, in which the Supreme Court tightened the statute’s description of “indecency.”
Mind you, I still believe very much in the democratization of speech that the Internet has provided. “Bloggers in pajamas” proved to be just as capable investigative reporters as those at the big television networks. This was proven when Dan Rather was exposed as a fraud for his allegations that President George W. Bush went AWOL based on documents he knew through his forensic expert could not be verified, and instead of disclosing that to the public, threatened the forensic expert he had hired with his nondisclosure agreement and aided in suppressing the truth.
Love them or hate them, a number of Internet journalists, researchers or publishers have brought to light facts about matters of public concern that were generally ignored by legacy media: President Obama’s “Fast and Furious” scandal and subsequent cover-up claiming “executive privilege” was brought to public attention by citizen journalists and online only publications; and most notably in the world’s best example of “whose ox is being gored” Julian Assange was once a hero to the left-leaning press when he released through WikiLeaks footage of “collateral damage” occurring under President Bush’s Mideast military watch. It seems that embarrassing President Bush is a public service while embarrassing Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is treason. Go figure.
And yet for all of that good, the Internet appears to be responsible for contaminating politics, eliminating civility from discourse, polarizing the nation, and if you believe some people, putting The Worst Person Who Ever Existed inside the White House.
I took an informal poll among my friends and readers asking the simple question “where did the Internet go wrong?” Taking those responses on board, and with my own bias and observation present (in no particular order) the five largest problems users of digital communication face.
1. Anonymity of speech: There are two sides to this issue. Anonymity of speech played an important part in the ability of citizens to criticize government during revolutionary times. CNN’s Jim Acosta can whine all he wants about Trump being mean to him. King George had his critics hanged. Fear of retribution from government played a big role in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm’n, where the Supreme Court struck down state laws that criminalized anonymous political speech.
At the same time, anonymity has brought out the worst in people online, particularly in the social media and commenting sections of publications. Hiding behind a keyboard has emboldened bullies, doxxers, cybermobs and trolls to slander, harass and embarrass others, often using language they would never use in a face-to-face confrontation. The situation has gotten so bad that many worthwhile blogs such as www.abovethelaw.com simply did not have the resources to police the flame wars, spam and general garbage people would post. And in an interesting lesson, the Gawker empire was largely built on a model of catering to the lowest and most mean-spirited commentators who saw themselves as part of a “community.” That didn’t work out so well.
2. Corporate pollution: With no moral compass to guide them, thousands of companies – often thinking of themselves as entrepreneurs – brought us click farms and pop-up ads that make many pages virtually unreadable. And in the pursuit of revenue, web-based publications are all too often eager to collect the micro payments that click-throughs bring. Honestly people, I’m not interested in that “one simple trick to whiten my teeth.”
How bad are pop-up ads? So bad that blocking software is now one of the most downloaded apps or extensions. Legacy publishers who jumped into the Internet had to learn this after several reboots. If you do not create content worth paying for, you are in the wrong business. The latest trend of offering a limited number of free visits seems to be working out for some publications, while the simple “bleg” for subscriptions or donations at the bottom of a page – as undignified is it seems – is working out well for outfits like The Guardian.
3. Clickbait and hot takes replacing real journalism: BuzzFeed, of course, is the most famous culprit for bringing us the “you’ll never believe what happened next!” headline. To be fair, if it wasn’t successful click bait, the formula would not have been so widely imitated. Nonetheless people find that such headlines infantilize the story and the tide has turned to where many readers I spoke to purposely avoid reading stories with click bait headlines.
Hot takes – modern lingo for “the rush to publish” – are often some of the most irresponsible, reckless and irretrievably harmful publications ever seen. Usually transmitted through Twitter, these unverified assertions of fact take on a life of their own. As I wrote in March, the Internet is now polluted with “zombie facts” which are errors that although retracted, never seem to die. To this day there are still tens of thousands of people who believe wrongly that President Bush served a plastic turkey as a photo op to troops in the Middle East. The number of times a correction or retraction is retweeted is a fraction of the distribution of the original calumny.
4. Abuse of Section 230: This is a good example of a noble purpose gone terribly wrong. At its heart, this federal law allows websites to be treated much like newspapers or magazines in being immunized from liability for publishing letters to the editor or third-party content such as wire service stories. But lawyers gonna lawyer. Somewhere down the line lawyers and bean-counters realized that if they stopped hiring staff and started treating reporters as “independent contractors” they could claim in a libel suit that they were not the origin of the story and are merely “passive conduits” for the freelancers’ stories. This fiction results in web-based news organizations reaping the value of the work but leaving reporters to fend for themselves in the event of a libel suit.
In a now famous case, reporter Dolia Estevez was a freelancer for the empty shell that calls itself Forbes Magazine. Estevez filed a story about Alejandra Sota, a former Mexican presidential spokesperson perceived in Mexico as one of the most corrupt public figures there. Sota retained the law firm of Clinton confidant David Boies to sue Estevez like a pit bull after a bowl full of methamphetamine. Relying on Section 230, Forbes threw Estevez under the bus and refused to cover her legal expenses. (Disclosure: with the help of law firm Morrison Foerster I took the case pro bono and convinced the federal courts to dismiss the case). As a result of this business model, any freelancer who does not either carry libel insurance on their own or get an indemnity from the publisher ought to have their head examined.
5. Social media: I saved the best for last didn’t I? There’s not enough space here to go into too much detail about the pungent side of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others. To a great degree the problems with social media are an amalgamation of the problems listed above: what should (and sometimes is) an opportunity for people to share meaningful insight became a race to the bottom of the ugliest aspects of people. These companies also suffer from corporate pollution, insofar as they are the greatest offenders with regard to vacuuming up and monetizing personal data about its users.
One of the great and yet unsolved problems they face relates to the Section 230 issue. Facebook wants to have it both ways: they claim to be a “mere conduit” when questioned about promoting hate speech, jihad, violence or pornography but in fact have a well-documented history of shadow banning, selective editing and arrangement, and an editorial bias against conservative voices. Last but not least, Facebook ended up being portrayed as an unwitting tool of the GRU, who in the minds of more than a few unhinged New McCarthyites manipulated Facebook into giving Vladimir Putin control of the Oval Office.
As a civil libertarian I am loathe to suggest regulatory schemes and structures to clean up speech. At best, the jurisdiction of the FTC is appropriately applied to the Internet when fraudulent commercial transactions are in question. But rudeness, hostility, vindictiveness, and political bias are not the stuff of commercial transactions. Perhaps Shakespeare was right all along, and “the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Charles Glasser (@MediaEthicsGuy) was a journalist in the 1980s and later studied at New York University School of Law. After several years as a First Amendment litigator, he became Bloomberg News’ first global media counsel. He is the author of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook”, teaches media ethics and law at New York University and also lectures globally and writes frequently about media and free speech issues for Instapundit and other outlets.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.