21 December 2016
Social media and subversion
Depending on who you read or listen to, some American is to blame for the rise of the self-styled Islamic State. It was either George W. Bush, who destabilized Iraq, or it was Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who provoked or encouraged rebellions against authoritarian regimes across the Muslim Middle East. Three families who lost loved ones to an IS-inspired gunman in the Orlando massacre have a different theory. They blame Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and are suing the social-media titans in hopes of proving their point. The plaintiffs claim that social media has been "instrumental to the rise of ISIS," and that "Without Defendants Twitter, Facebook, and Google (YouTube), the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible."This is not the first attempt to hold social media accountable for terrorism, but previous efforts have come handicapped by the Communications Decency Act, which holds that social-media platforms are not liable for "user-generated content." Lawyers for the new plaintiffs plan to argue that the defendants effectively created terrorist content by combining web pages with ads. While that sounds like something of a reach, the argument that the defendants thus profited from carrying terrorist content may prove more impressive to jurors or judges. The defendants themselves claim to taking steps against "groups engaging in terrorist activity," but the scope of their activity is most likely too narrow for the plaintiffs. Much will depend on what the plaintiffs present as proof of social-media instrumentality, and whether they go beyond sites or accounts explicitly advocating acts of violence in identifying the building blocks of the IS and other groups. Whatever happens, the lawsuit is bound to alarm some civil libertarians on slippery-slope principles. How different will we be from China, some certainly will ask, if litigation like this has a chilling effect on social media, or if the remedy to the plaintiffs' complaint is greater state censorship of social media? If the defendants are believed to have taken responsible steps already, yet are not satisfactory to the plaintiffs, or others in a censorious or Trumpish mood, what more can be done without setting dangerous precedents threatening less culpable forms of dissent? I have no answer, but that doesn't mean there's no point asking the question, and if the lawsuit inspires reasonable discussion of the subject it will have benefited the country even if it fails to reward the plaintiffs in the end.