On the menu today: NBC News appoints itself the policeman of political speech on the Internet; Anthony Fauci has some good news to share but alludes to some bad news; and President Trump unwittingly helps his critics make money, yet again.
It Turns Out the ‘NBC’ in ‘NBC News’ Is for ‘Now in the Business of Censorship’
Wow. I guess every day at the “NBC News Verification Unit” is a game of “Two Truths and a Lie.”
Yesterday NBC News, the employer of Brian Williams and former employer of Matt Lauer, Mark Halperin, and Chris Matthews, revealed that it has an obscure self-described “verification unit” that appointed itself to police American political discourse, and initially reported that Zero Hedge and the Federalist had been banned from generating revenue through widely used Google Ads, deeming their content to be racist. The report characterized those sites as “far-right,” even though the Federalist publishes a variety of right-of-center viewpoints and Zero Hedge is an idiosyncratic libertarian-leaning financial and market news site.
Zero Hedge will no longer be able to use Google’s ad platform to monetize its content as of last week, and The Federalist was warned about their comments section and was given three days to comply with Google’s rules before the company ceased access to its ad platform.
Google said The Federalist has since removed comments from its website after the company “worked with them to address issues on their site related to the comments section.” Google did not immediately say whether The Federalist was still in jeopardy of losing the platform.
The conservative websites were flagged by Google because of their comment sections, not for any particular piece of content generated by either website. The Federalist did not immediately return a request for comment, and a spokesperson for Zero Hedge could not be immediately reached.
As you may have noticed, few media companies spend a lot of time and effort patrolling their comments sections.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act declares, “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,” and you’ve probably seen increasingly heated arguments about this law. The gist is companies do not have civil liability for something that someone else posts on their website; Facebook is not responsible for what gets posted on its site the way the publishers and editors of the New York Times are for what gets published in their pages. Without this provision in the law, companies would want to run all potential comments by lawyers before letting anything go up online — or at the very least, have someone with familiarity with libel and criminal liability laws review comments before allowing the audience to see them.
Repealing Section 230 would, if not destroy Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, chat boards, comments, and most social-media sites, drastically alter how they operate; the days of users posting whatever they want on platforms with no oversight or review would come to an end.
Keep in mind, Google owns YouTube. It’s not hard to find “Jews control the world along with the Illuminati” videos on YouTube. Is Google responsible for the content of those videos? Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri noticed that Google believes that they cannot be held responsible for what others post on sites like YouTube, but simultaneously declares they will hold other companies responsible for what others post on their sites.
Apparently, Google has decided that the Federalist is responsible for what gets posted in its comments sections. Will any other company be subjected to this standard? Will NBCNews.com be held responsible for comments on that site?
Over on NBCNews.com, Adele-Momoko Fraser’s updated story insists her original reporting was correct and that Google backtracked from its original decision. Apparently, it’s a “Not Much Actual Verification Unit.”
One of the odder sections in that odd, mostly anonymously sourced piece:
Center for Countering Digital Hate, a British nonprofit that combats online hate and misinformation. They found that 10 U.S-based websites have published what they say are racist articles about the protests, and projected that the websites would make millions of dollars through Google Ads.
Just how lucrative do these people think writing for political websites are? Has anyone noticed that we’re always asking for money?
Once again, we see that the default setting for most people in corporate America and establishment media is not support for freedom of expression, but support for freedom of expression of ideas they support, and censorship in one form or another for expression of ideas they oppose. That philosophy is not all that different from the perspective of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un; in Russia, you have unlimited freedom of expression to praise Putin any way you like.
There are certain forms of expression we ban because the process of creating it is inherently harmful — child pornography or animal cruelty. The Supreme Court has upheld a very narrow restriction on speech deemed likely to incite violence against others, but this is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. Explicit and direct threats and announcements of an intent to physically harm someone are crimes; general furious speech is not. In R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, the Court struck down a hate-crime statute, decreeing that the state can restrict speech to a certain “time, place, or manner,” but only if those restrictions were “justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech.” (I.e., the government can ban flag-burning by, say, banning all outdoor fires in certain areas, but not explicitly because it dishonors the U.S. flag.)
Whatever the case, it’s clear now that NBC News was trying to have the Federalist demonetized. Unequipped to offer a compelling case on her own, Adele-Momoko Fraser appealed to authority by pointing to the alleged expertise of a previously unknown British group calling itself the “Center for Countering Digital Hate.” A quick scan of the site will illustrate that the group relies on unsubstantiated Internet trolling as a basis for its “reports.” It looks as if the site is manned by one person, named Imran Ahmed, who seems to believe that Microsoft and Ford are also part of the white-supremacist conspiracy. It’s embarrassing that NBC News would rely on information given by such a transparently ideological and amateurish organization to censor anyone.
The NBC News Verification Unit is attempting to shut down voices who are as allegedly as controversial as Alex Jones, while relying on sources who are as reliable as Alex Jones.
The impulse to censor, particularly of views deemed controversial, is generally driven by a fear that audiences and the general public cannot distinguish between good ideas and bad ones. It’s rarely put this explicitly, but the impulse is often, “We cannot allow people to see that, because they might like it and support it.” This is not an inherently nutty fear; the world has plenty of twisted ideologies and charismatic radicals that can lead people down the wrong path — Columbiners, Incels, ISIS, that bizarre and disturbing Nxivm cult. The United States has a lot of angry, frustrated young people eager to find scapegoats and lash out about their disappointments in life. (Big theme of the last book!) But the real danger of those groups is what they do, not what they say. Singing “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” is not the same as actually shooting someone.
I don’t always agree with what’s written at the Federalist or Zero Hedge, but that’s not the point. No one — particularly no media organization that likes to tell itself that it supports the free expression of ideas and free debate — should be trying to put those sites out of business. (I can’t help but wonder if some of this is driven by a seething resentment that big-name media institutions are in financially hard times, and these sites that certain big media company employees deem “unworthy” are still in business.)
Consider this closing quote and link to Christopher Bedford’s lead essay at the Federalist as a bit of solidarity:
Wall Street capitalists and corporate leaders think its better to pay homage to the mob, feeding it employees, executives, and competitors and hoping this will satisfy the demands. It doesn’t, of course, and won’t ever.
Now the mob is both inside the door and at it, its supporters running H.R. departments and manning diversity posts while boycotting, threatening and suing from outside. While they could once count on their friends in the GOP to help them out, they no longer have any real friends in the party. If executives don’t stand up for themselves now, no one will. And the scaffold is calling.
This Just Handed to Me: The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Still Going On
Reassuring news from Dr. Anthony Fauci: He doesn’t think a second lockdown will be necessary, and that any second wave won’t be as bad as the first wave that hit New York City. “I don’t think that could happen under today’s circumstances of our full awareness of the potential of this virus, which is highly transmissible.”
Not-so-reassuring news from Dr. Fauci: He says he hasn’t talked to President Trump in two weeks.
Why Does the President So Consistently Reward His Critics?
It never fails. Someone writes a book about Donald Trump that criticizes him or paints him in a negative light. Standing out in a bookstore or on Amazon is hard; plenty of books come out every week and there’s hardly a shortage of books with the core theme of “Trump is bad” or “Trump is a bad president.” The president could ensure a critical book doesn’t sell many copies by simply ignoring it, and when asked about it, simply replying, “As president, I’ve got bigger things to worry about than what’s in some book.”
Instead, almost every time, Trump denounces the book and the author, and turns it into a news story by threatening legal action . . . and the book surges to the top of the Amazon rankings. John Bolton is the lucky winner this week. Trump’s niece Mary will probably be the next big beneficiary of the president’s lack of impulse control.
ADDENDA: Thanks to Charlie for his kind words on the most recent episode of The Editors podcast.
You thought 2020 was bad so far? Showtime will release its two-night miniseries based on James Comey’s autobiography in November, with Jeff Daniels as Comey and Brendan Gleeson as Donald Trump. It’s enough to make someone yearn for the good old days of Murder Hornets.