U.S. Capitol Riot Shows Social Media Self-governance Is Not Working

Image credit: iStockphoto/Dilok Klaisataporn

Craig Kelly is a Member of Parliament for the Federal Australian electorate of Hughes, in suburban Sydney. He is also well known as someone who uses social media channels to push various alt-right conspiracy theories.

A look at Kelly’s Facebook page reveals his pet concerns as expressed to his 73,000 followers:

Left-wing Antifa agitators were responsible for the riot at the US Capitol, and they did it just to make Donald Trump look bad. Donald Trump really won the US election in a landslide. Go to this link published by a website operated by some group no-one has ever heard of to see the proof.

Climate change is a hoax, as is Covid-19, and there is a world conspiracy by Big Pharma to deprive people of the use of hydroxychloroquine, the unproven treatment championed by Donald Trump as the panacea for the coronavirus.

In short, Kelly is a fellow traveler with the alt-right MAGA world and lives in very much the same bubble of social media.

He happily aggregates a whole raft of disproven conspiracy theories on his site. He then uses his status as a Member of Parliament to give them credence, even though he should really be more focused on what is happening in his own electorate and Australia.

He quotes from the same links and sources, and his comments page is full of posts not just from people in Australia but from some in the U.S. who applaud his point of view.

This is despite the fact that he is a member of Australia’s governing coalition party, which has recognized and congratulated the incoming administration of President-Elect Joe Biden.

Kelly faced strong criticism this week in Australia for his social media activity. But as he has done before, he just brushed it off.

In his and his followers' minds, he is a hero and a fighter for free speech and the truth. Or at least the version of the truth he believes in.

When critical thinking went missing

The Australian anger over Kelly’s social media was just one ripple emanating from the seismic eruption in the U.S. The U.S. Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6, 2021, only proved what we already know: social media is so much more than words and has formidable power to activate and inspire people to extreme acts.

Indeed, the internet democratized the creation and distribution of information and has given many people a voice. But the downside is that in two decades, social media has become a social monster.

At its worst, it is used to manipulate people for nefarious causes, is full of people who don’t exist, and others who are happy to peddle lies for their cause. Ironically, we have never been more connected, but at the same time, we have never been more divided.

What happened in the U.S. was the culmination of years of fake news, polarized opinions, and the rise of alternative facts pushed out through social media groups that listen to only one opinion and block out others. The world view of MAGA and Black Lives Matter protesters is almost impossible to reconcile because they almost live on different planets regarding their understanding of facts.

Having arrived at this point, what can be done to defuse the toxicity? Because it’s not inconceivable that if the forces that created the U.S. Capitol Hill riot are allowed to continue worldwide, then civil wars are entirely possible, and democracy is really in trouble.

A survey published in November by the Reboot Foundation finds that nearly half of Americans acknowledge that they generally do not engage in discussions with people holding opinions different from theirs.

Craig Kelly’s Facebook page shows that this is mostly the case also in Australia. Anyone who wanders onto his page and disputes his claims is denounced by his followers in highly aggressive language.

The survey, which focused on the state of critical thinking skills in the general public, found that almost half of the individuals surveyed reported only “sometimes,” “rarely,” or “never” seeking out people with different opinions to engage in discussion.

“A cornerstone of critical thinking is an openness to making judgments and solving problems in a reflective, objective manner,” said Helen Lee Bouygues, chief executive of Reboot.

“Everything we’ve seen with the U.S. presidential election and the skepticism and misinformation around the coronavirus pandemic supports our survey results that too many Americans do not want their beliefs or opinions challenged.”

So how to fix this? Reboot puts a lot of emphasis on teaching critical thinking to young people as they go through school.

According to their survey, 95% thought critical thinking courses should be required at the K-12 level, and 91% thought they should be required in college.

Encouragingly, more people want critical thinking skills taught earlier, with 43% saying early childhood was the ideal time to develop these skills, a timeframe supported by researchers. That’s a 23% increase over a previous Reboot survey on the topic.

When self-regulation is failing

You cannot put all the blame on social media platforms. After all, they are for-profit companies with shareholders and profits to worry about. Their success is often measured by the growth of the user base and the platform's popularity.  

Even Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg agreed. A Guardian article showed him urging governments and regulators to take an active role, and the need for regulations in four areas — harmful content, election integrity, privacy, and data portability. In a previous Washington Post editorial, he said: "I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators. By updating the rules for the internet, we can preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things – while also protecting society from broader harms."

Twitter's Jack Dorsey concurred as much in a Bloomberg article. He said that regulations like GDPR have had a positive impact on the industry. 

However, the recent U.S. Capitol riot showed that self-regulation by the platforms has been a palpable failure and can only be part of the solution. It is an arbitrary response and runs the risk of being highly selective. As we are seeing, it lays open the criticism that free speech is being stifled.

One solution, ironically advocated by Donald Trump, is to repeal U.S. Federal legislation’s Section 230, which dates from 1996 and absolves the platforms from the responsibility for what people say.

This is the legal reason that defines the platforms as infrastructure utilities or services such as the Post Office, not as publishers who are liable for what they publish.

It means that if you are defamed, you sue the original publisher – a newspaper or a magazine – but the social media platform which amplified the comments many thousands of times can’t be touched.

Ironically, Donald Trump has advocated repealing Section 230 when it would seem that such a move might cramp his ability (assuming he gets back on social media) to broadcast his views.

In the last few weeks, the platforms have been issuing warnings on his posts. But if they were legally liable for them, you can’t imagine they would permit them, and that goes for a whole swathe of content.

It is really about irresponsibility

Censorship, of course, can only get us so far. Beyond that, shouldn’t political parties put some degree of responsibility on their elected representatives to be more responsible?

Shouldn’t there be some kind of ethical code they should adhere to before they go on to Facebook and share something which is demonstrably false and incites violence just because it suits their political ends?

Free speech is a noble principle, but it all gets very muddy very quickly. Does that mean that free speech means the right to spread lies and fake news? And that leads back to the circular, and ultimately unproductive, argument about what is a lie to me might be truth to someone else.

Donald Trump is only the most extreme example. Not many people outside of Australia know Craig Kelly, but he is also part of the problem.

He has a very serious job as a Member of Parliament who pushes the same conspiracy theories with the same enthusiasm as any of the “patriots” who stormed the U.S. Capitol. His constituency has become not just the people who live in his electorate. Still, he plays to the alt-right universe everywhere.

So, while Donald Trump is banned from social media, Kelly’s most recent post — just before I filed this story — has a shot at Bill Gates and the idea of the “Great Reset,” a favorite target of the alt-right.

The fact that he is continuing to do that, with impunity and unrestrained by regulation or any ethical framework, is evidence of how much work still needs to be done before the internet can be anywhere near a safe place.

Additional reporting by Winston Thomas

Image credit: iStockphoto/Dilok Klaisataporn