America’s Leaders Have No Clue What to Do About Disinformation

Legal scholar Jonathan Turley who appeared at a hearing held by the House Congressional Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

Legal scholar Jonathan Turley who appeared at a hearing held by the House Congressional Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.
Screenshot: Lucas Ropek/House Committee on Energy and Commerce

As disinformation and misinformation have increasingly been blamed for rising political extremism and polarization in the U.S., lawmakers have naturally sought to cobble together some sort of legislative response. The problem is that Congress is, themselves, so polarized that they can’t seem to agree on how to do that.

Case in point: a congressional hearing held Wednesday by the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, where lawmakers sought to look at the role of not just social media companies, but also traditional media—i.e., television—in enflaming partisanship and extremism. Republicans and Democrats both admitted that partisan media has played a big role in recent political upheaval, while ultimately trading aggrieved barbs indicative of the very problem they were trying to solve.

What is America going to do about disinformation? The answer, apparently, is: We have no idea!

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Deplatforming Fox?

The hearing was spurred by a recent incident in which Democratic California lawmakers Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney penned a letter to a dozen cable, satellite, and streaming companies, from AT&T and Comcast to Apple and Amazon, effectively asking that they reconsider giving a platform to conservative news programming like “Newsmax, One America News Network (OANN), and Fox News” on the basis that they were essentially “misinformation rumor mills and conspiracy theory hotbeds that produce content that leads to real harm.” As example, a section of the letter reads:

We are concerned about the role AT&T plays in disseminating misinformation to millions of its U-verse, DirecTV, and AT&T TV subscribers, and we write to you today to request additional information about what actions AT&T is taking to address these issues…What moral or ethical principles (including those related to journalistic integrity, violence, medical information, and public health) do you apply in deciding which channels to carry or when to take adverse actions against a channel?

It’s unsurprising that Democrats would be concerned about this since right-wing media has widely been blamed for helping radicalize Donald Trump supporters and galvanizing their quest to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. That galvanization ultimately helped push a deranged crowd into the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6—an incident that ended with the deaths of at least five people.

Critics have also blamed outlets like Fox News and other right-wing channels for sewing doubts about the seriousness of the coronavirus threat—and, in so doing, endangering the lives of their viewers. The Democrats’ letter alleges:

These same networks also have been key vectors of spreading misinformation related to the pandemic. A media watchdog found over 250 cases of COVID-19 misinformation on Fox News in just one five-day period, 9 and economists demonstrated that Fox News had a demonstrable impact on non-compliance with public health guidelines.

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At Wednesday’s hearing, Republicans acknowledged the problematic nature of these beliefs, while nevertheless criticizing Democrats’ proposed solution, which they said was tantamount to unconstitutional censorship. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington state Republican and the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, vociferously attacked the recent letter, saying:

In all my time on this committee there’s never been a more obvious, direct attack on the First Amendment…If the Majority was really interested in a meaningful dialogue, you wouldn’t schedule a hyper-partisan hearing to shame and blame. You wouldn’t be sending letters pressuring private companies to block conservative media outlets. I’m not only disappointed by this hearing, I’m deeply troubled by it.

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Rodgers also trotted out the “C” word—claiming the letter was similar to “actions by the Chinese Communist party.” If Rodgers’s concerns about freedom of speech might hold some water, a defense of the most baseless right-wing content that has come down the pipeline from stations like Fox News and OAN does not. Democrats said Wednesday that they ultimately did not actually support pulling certain programming off the air, though they wanted to find a way to de-escalate their messages.

Dog Death Threats

Conservatives’ unhinged ideations were not the only ones on trial Wednesday. Republicans defensively pointed out examples of blue America’s own media-fueled delusions—including, apparently, an episode involving death threats to a dog.

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Yes, Jonathan Turley, a conservative legal scholar at George Washington University, has said before (and repeated yesterday) that, after testifying during Trump’s first impeachment hearing in 2019, he and his family became the object of ongoing death threats via social media—including ones directed at his goldendoodle, Luna. He said:

Extremist violent speech is not an abstract or academic matter with me or many others who work in the public domain. Through the years I’ve received hundreds of threats against myself, my family, even my dog. My home has been targeted. Multiple campaigns have sought my termination as a professor. … Thus, while I am generally viewed as free-speech purist, I have no illusions about the harm of disinformation and extremist speech in our society.

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Also present Wednesday was Rep. Steve Scalise, the GOP congressman who, in 2017, was shot during the so-called “Congressional baseball shooting” wherein a gunman opened fire at a charity game in Alexandria, Virginia. The culprit, 66-year-old James Hodgkinson, was a big Sen. Bernie Sanders supporter and was largely thought to have been radicalized by political media. Scalise said Wednesday:

The gunman was motivated by hyper-charged rhetoric that he was hearing from the left—from high, prominent elected officials, as well as media personalities…

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Sending death threats and attacking people you disagree with (verbally or otherwise) is a very bipartisan problem: Just look at the horrible abuse that disinformation-addled right-wingers hurled at local health officials and Dr. Anthony Fauci for having the temerity to suggest they should wear a face mask and quarantine so as not to catch covid-19. In other cases, the most radicalized conservatives have done more than talk (see: the attempted kidnapping of the Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, not to mention the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, which threatened Democratic and Republican members of Congress alike).

Republicans also repeatedly brought up “Russiagate,” bandying it about as a liberal equivalent to their own constituents’ most paranoiac fantasies—and an example of how Democrats are susceptible to extreme thinking, too.

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In some sense, this is a valid point.“Russiagate” is a prime example of how a political meme can go viral, conquering millions of hearts and minds, before facts ever enter into play. The idea that Trump colluded with Russia to throw the 2016 presidential election was widely perpetuated by America’s elite media institutions (read: late night talk shows, MSNBC, CNN, Saturday Night Live, our biggest national newspapers, and so on). Leading news organizations gave the issue incessant, editorialized coverage—frequenting convincing their audiences that Trump’s downfall was right around the corner. These outsized claims largely fell flat when the Mueller investigation found no evidence of a criminal conspiracy to vindicate the “scandal’s” central premise. While there may be evidence of contact between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, the news coverage of the scandal frequently played hard and loose with the facts.

America’s Unhealthy Social Media Diet

Yes, Americans on both sides of the political aisle are susceptible to believing stuff that isn’t true and getting all riled up. We can argue about who believes the more ludicrous stuff (or who has responded to that stuff with the more violence and vitriol), but when boiled down to its essentials, most partisan thinking has a strikingly similar message and outlook: We’re getting screwed and it’s somebody else’s fault. The problem is that both sides can’t agree on whose fault it is (usually, it’s blamed on the opposing political party).

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One invited speaker, Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Media at Columbia University, said her research had seen similar types of information toxicity all over the map:

Misinformation is a systemic problem—it affects all. I wholeheartedly endorse the view that this is not a partisan issue. We see it in different geographies and right across the political spectrum operating in the same way.

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Speakers also zeroed in on one of the primary sources of the problem: the hollowing out of local news media via Big Tech’s greedy suck of national advertising revenue, and the subsequent ascendance of an information landscape governed by social media. With this transformation, Americans have essentially gone from a healthy media diet to one chock full of junk food.

Invited speaker Soledad O’Brien, a former news anchor and journalist who now runs her own media company, said that the affliction of America’s “truth decay” has been hastened by the decline of America’s journalism industry:

How did we get here? … I believe this era of “truth decay” began when local newspapers were badly—even mortally—wounded by the emergence of free social media and the decline of advertising dollars, like classified ads. Our country has lost almost 2,100 papers since 2004. Local news is the heartbeat of American journalism, the glue of civic participation, the place where we turn to for information about our local taxes, quality education, infrastructure. Its demise left the public with only the unfiltered and unverified cauldron of presumed fact and opinion that is social media.

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With these tectonic shifts, it’s also worth noting that our surviving media outlets have shifted to a business model that emphasizes divisive, polarizing issues designed to split audiences. Conflict drives readers, which drives ad revenue, which means that U.S. news outlets are effectively helping further the partisan entrenchment that everybody ostensibly wants to neutralize.

A Solution That Will Surely Work: Banning Liars

As with most things, diagnosing a problem can be far easier than finding a solution. There were few specific suggestions offered Wednesday about what could be done to make everybody more coherent and less angry.

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O’Brien, for example, proposed this actionable plan: “Do not book liars on the air!” she said repeatedly, opining that if news organizations would just avoid “liars” and “lies,” we could fix our broken media landscape.

Aside from the fact that it’s not exactly clear how outlets would do this (should CNN panelists be hooked up to polygraphs as soon as they enter the studio?), the problem that O’Brien is clearly side-stepping here is that Democrats and Republicans can’t even agree on what counts as a lie and what counts as the truth. That’s the whole point: An ecosystem of separate, polarized, and mutually reinforcing news feeds has, time and again, led Americans to interpret the same set of facts through wildly different lenses. Within this atmosphere of distrust and fractured media, opportunistic actors—both domestic and foreign—take advantage of ideological fault-lines to make the problem worse.

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To come full circle and return to where we began: One thing seems certain and that is that de-platforming an organization like Fox News will not deliver us from this hellscape. No matter how noble the intent, a partisan crusade against conservative media won’t reduce polarization, nor will it rid America of the ideas expressed on those platforms. Instead, it will just drive former viewers of said content into other corners of the media ecosystem (read: the recent Twitter exodus to Parler), where they can be free to get more extreme.

Americans need to learn that neither half of the country is going anywhere. We’ll just have to keep listening to each other, no matter how much we hate what we hear.

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Twitter Passes Stimulus Package for the Very Online

Illustration for article titled Twitter Passes Stimulus Package for the Very Online

Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP (Getty Images)

Twitter is finally rolling out a way to get paid for tweeting that doesn’t involve putting a Venmo link in your bio, promoting a Patreon, or using the app to hunt for a rich spouse.

On Thursday, the company announced a new feature that could change the way the app functions entirely: Super Follows, which is essentially paid subscriptions for individual Twitter feeds. Users will now be able to paywall certain types of content away from others on Twitter with “Super Follows,” which allows them to charge more for various types of content. According to the Verge, that could include giving paid subscribers access to private tweet feeds, Twitter’s new newsletter feature, or profile badges. Another feature announced on Thursday, the ability for users to create and join groups called Communities, can also be paywalled. Both of these additions won’t be rolled out for a few months, and according to the Verge, it’s not clear how big a cut Twitter will take from the revenue.

This is a big shift in the way Twitter operates: a long-running and pretty tired joke on the site has been that “this site is free,” referring to none of its content directly costing any money whatsoever. The flip part of that equation is that monetizing a Twitter presence is impossible without referring fans somewhere else, even if that’s just to pay for access to a private Twitter feed. So this is sort of a big shift, in that it could reshape the incentives for users to participate in the site in the first place and allow Twitter to compete directly with crowdfunding app Patreon and similar payment tools on Facebook and YouTube.

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It’s also easy to see how this could open a Pandora’s Box of sorts for Twitter. It’s long struggled to rein in toxic communities like white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and far-right trolls, all of whom could now potentially use the app as a way to make money. The addition of private feeds for subscribers could also let those so inclined hide stuff like harassment campaigns behind paywalls, where such content will be accessible to a smaller pool of paying followers unlikely to report it to the site’s moderators. (It’s already possible to do this via direct messages, locked accounts, and off-site coordination, but still.)

Similarly, the Communities feature sounds pretty close to Facebook Groups. Facebook pivoted from the news feed to an emphasis on Groups in 2019, which had disastrous consequences after said Groups were infested with death threats, harassment, and calls to violence.

Another thing Twitter hasn’t clarified is whether it will allow Super Follows for sexual content, a type of content which is only subject to a handful of restrictions elsewhere on the site (like not posting it in banner images or profile pictures.) Allowing it would put the site in direct competition with places like OnlyFans, though when Motherboard’s Samantha Cole asked Twitter whether or not it will allow users to pay for porn the company responded with a non-answer, claiming that it was “examining and rethinking the incentives of our service.”

The announcement has also set off a wave of am-I-kidding-or-aren’t-I speculation from reporters and other media types about whether or not their employers will allow them to charge for tweets. It’s not any kind of secret that journalists are among the most Twitter-addicted people on the planet and comprise a large percentage of the power users that dominate the app’s feed… and thus easy to see why this is an appealing fantasy for them.

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Suffice it to say that while anything that subsidizes, say, tech bloggers buying fancy aquariums is welcome, how big the reader appetite to fund 280-character insights is or how willing news organizations are to let staff run sidelines remains speculative at best.

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Twitter has recently rolled out countless features including Instagram Stories-esque Fleets; newsletters; and a Clubhouse-like audio chat tool. It acquired a screen-sharing app called Squad that could be of use if it decides to launch a streaming service, and an adtech firm called CrossInstall which could help fix its notoriously busted ad tools. This could all be related to a failed investor coup led by vampiric hedge fund Elliott Management last March demanding Twitter catch up to its far more profitable competition.

According to the Verge, Twitter said during a business presentation on Thursday that paid subscriptions and the Communities feature are marked as “what’s next” without putting forward a solid timeline for implementation. Per CNBC, Twitter told analysts and investors it hopes the new features will help it hit its goal of $7.5 billion in annual revenue by 2023, about double how much money it makes now.

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What I Hear on Clubhouse: For Black People, Will Silicon Valley’s Hot New Thing Be More Terrordome Than Mecca?

Illustration for article titled What I Hear on Clubhouse: For Black People, Will Silicon Valley’s Hot New Thing Be More Terrordome Than Mecca?

Photo: rafapress (Shutterstock)

What happens when everyone is an “expert?” How to navigate a world where everyone’s “insights,” no matter how dubious, are cloaked in corporate-speak, strenuously hyped by like-minded cohorts, then injected straight into your brain via a mechanism intentionally designed to push your emotional buttons? And how much do you think your ideas and energy are worth?

How about your very voice?

These questions bubble up every time I dip into Clubhouse, the audio-only meeting place that slipped into the social media ecosystem during the spring of 2020 and immediately generated buzz and agita among the Early Adopter crowd. Since October, when a friend jumped me into the invite-only Clubhouse world of “rooms” and “hallways,” I have listened in as its user base expanded from almost exclusively white tech industry operators, venture capitalists, and business owners to a wide diaspora of Black, Latinx, and other ethnic minority groups here and abroad.

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Similar to the concerns I shared here at The Root in 2017 on how Facebook, Twitter, and other major social media companies deftly exploited the energy, creativity and innovative ideas of Black users on their respective marches toward global dominance, what I hear when I visit Clubhouse is concerning, indeed. Over a few months, as the number of users increased, the app’s developers have expanded functionality so that you, too, can start a discussion and host it in a “room.” Whether you are a host a speaker or a listener, you can pop in on a range of live discussions; the topics advertised in headline descriptions run a wide gamut between rank marketing come-ons for LLC Twitter and Insta, such as “How to Build Your Personal Brand Through Clubhouse,” to philosophical themes like “Finding Inner-Peace Through Love and Loss.”

As recently noted by writer Chris Lubin for VSB, Clubhouse’s founders and investors are now rapidly onboarding Black, Latino, and other users from historically marginalized communities.

Color me cynical, but if Clubhouse’s primarily white founders and major investors eventually achieve a big payday, it will largely be due to the creative labor and intellectual property (IP) of its Black users. And as I’ve experienced the Clubhouse environment thus far —with its peculiarly insular nomenclature, and still-developing functionalities and performance protocols—it is this toxic aspect of exploitation, along with two other factors, that lead me to be extremely wary.

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I have chimed in a few times in certain “rooms” at Clubhouse, usually in discussions related to my industry—journalism and strategic communications—or my hometown, San Francisco. I pipe up primarily due to what I consistently perceive to be an absence of values (as in morality)-based discussions on Clubhouse: Amidst pseudo-intellectual language and annoying TechSpeak about “cap tables,” “exits,” and the like, the broad discourse in many Clubhouse rooms strikes me as alarmingly free of humanitarian focus.

The app’s veneer of exclusivity and “insider-ism,” fostered in part by its limited accessibility (it is only compatible with Apple’s iOS programming interface, and doesn’t easily accommodate hearing-impaired users) also gives me pause.

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The third source of my trepidation—and perhaps the most menacing, overall—has to do with the way Clubhouse echoes, in function and in its early socialization into the wider world, the path blazed by Facebook. Even its design look-and-feel updates Facebook’s initially cheery look and feel. “Hey, lookit these users who are in here,” the design says. “You know them—or you want to know them, right?” The unstated yet real goal is that users will trust other users who have made it into these tacitly “exclusive” Clubhouse rooms.

Yes, there are non-predatory discussions focusing on deeply emotional topics, such as conversations hosted by actor Lakeith Stanfield covering youth mental health and suicide. But these human-centered, solutions-oriented “rooms” tend to get lost amid the growing collection of discussions hosted by “experts” touting Get-Rich-Quick schemes.

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What could possibly go wrong?

Contemplating Compensation for Users: Who Decides How Much Your Ideas (and Possibly Your Soul) Are Worth?

In a February 7 “Town Hall” on Clubhouse, co-founder Paul Davison sounded positively giddy in describing his goal of “scaling intimacy” via the platform, primarily by having millions of people around the world talk to each other in real-time in “rooms” where Hosts invite speakers onto a virtual “stage,” all of it organized as “social clubs.” (There’s an inherent contradiction between the literal definition of intimacy and “millions of people connecting in groups” but that hasn’t seemed to occur to Clubhouse’s founders or PR team.) Davison has also been vocal about wanting users to be able to make money on the platform; he mentioned that his developer team is exploring plans to eventually roll out a formal “tipping” model in which users who Host discussions in “rooms” can somehow receive compensation. Another plan in the works involves a subscription model that might allow users to earn money.

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As I listened in on that town hall, Davison and his team struck me as predictably well-meaning in their stated desire to provide a new vehicle for building “communities”—but also shockingly naïve about the fundamental unpredictability of human behavior, and the infinite capacity for humans to not only turn against each other, but to also ruthlessly exploit and profit from aspiration, cultural fears, and ambition.

Sure enough, as I was working on this piece for The Root, The New York Times published an article about Clubhouse in which the writers spoke with Porsha Bell, a Black woman user who said she’d been subjected to misogynistic and racist bullying on the site—only to have the company suspend her account after she tried to push back. “My page is suspended, while the bullies get to roam free,” Bell told The Times.

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It is almost as if Davison and his team and one of the app’s marquee investors, the VC firm Andreessen Hor0witz are convinced that whatever “magical experience” (Davison’s words, from the town hall) they can scale up could not ever turn into an evil giant genie that will never be controlled. Put another way, see: “Facebook,” “disinformation,” “rise of 21st century racist white nationalists,” and “the rise of Would-be Dictator-Former U.S. President Donald Trump.” Black people still using Facebook have by now developed technical and emotional coping skills to contend with the racist Terrordome that it has become.

I do not wish for it, but I can absolutely envision the real potential of new forms of social and economic havoc resulting from Clubhouse—especially if it turns out that sharing not just your IP and creative energy but also literally your own voice might eventually morph into economic or political forms over which you have little to no control.

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Similar to facial recognition technologies that create major risks for Black people—thanks to racism baked into both algorithms and law enforcement agencies—how do we know what the future of voice recognition, also known as voice biometrics AI programs, will hold for Black people and other historically-marginalized populations? Clubhouse is surely a big test case, whether or not users consent. For users who are Black and hoping to leverage the app for material gain, the cost-benefit analysis is far more of a high-stakes proposition than it is for the VCs and other wealthy white people pontificating on the platform.

After listening in there for a few months now, I’m more skeptical than enthusiastic about Clubhouse—and not because I do not think Black users (or “creators” in the preferred language of the site) aren’t capable of finding delightfully creative ways of maximizing the audio-only format.

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My most pressing worry is that despite the sheer hell we’ve all been through and are still living—thanks in part to social media companies that extract our labor while simultaneously failing to hold white people accountable—we might be on the cusp, again, of getting played by another sparkly “new thing” that draws us in through implied promises of material or cultural gain, only to leave us in worse shape than before. If we ever manage to “iterate” white racism out of existence, I might be willing to tune in without reservation.


Amy L. Alexander is a journalist and author of numerous nonfiction books, including Uncovering Race: a Black Journalist’s Story of Reporting and Reinvention.

Twitter to Start Labeling Personal Accounts of Heads of State

Illustration for article titled Twitter to Start Labeling Personal Accounts of Heads of State

Photo: Lionel Bonaventure (Getty Images)

Starting next week, you should start seeing new labels on more government-run Twitter accounts as well as the personal accounts of heads of state. It’s part of Twitter’s latest expansion of its policy on government-affiliated accounts, with the idea being that this additional context should help users “have a more informed experience on Twitter,” the company said on Thursday.

Back in August, when Twitter first announced plans to label the accounts of key government officials and state-affiliated media entities, the company explicitly stated that personal accounts of government officials would be exempt “as these accounts enjoy widespread name recognition, media attention, and public awareness.” But after “receiving feedback” from stakeholders, Twitter appears to have reversed course on that.

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The text for these labels is getting an update as well so that users can tell at a glance if a tweet’s from a government official versus an institution, per a blog post from Twitter Support.

Twitter is also rolling out its labels on government-affiliated accounts to 16 other countries. In its August announcement, only China, France, Russia the United Kingdom, and the United States made the list, but now Twitter’s adding Canada, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, Germany, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates beginning on February 17.

Twitter said Thursday it plans to apply additional labels to state-affiliated media accounts in the coming months. It previously announced plans to stop amplifying accounts where a state-run body “exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution.” However, these labels don’t extend to outlets that receive government funding but still maintain editorial independence, such as NPR in America or the BBC in the UK.

While it may be long overdue, Twitter seems to finally be making decisive changes to ensure users are at least properly informed while they’re doomscrolling. The news follows Twitter’s permanent ban of former President Donald Trump in January after pro-Trump insurgents raided the Capitol Building in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

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QAnon Now Getting Banned On Platforms We’ve Never Even Heard Of

Illustration for article titled QAnon Now Getting Banned On Platforms Weve Never Even Heard Of

Screenshot: Clapper/Google Play Store (Fair Use)

QAnon, the sprawling far-right internet conspiracy theory that asserts the entire Trump presidency was secretly dedicated to waging a shadow war against an omnipresent cabal of Satan-worshipping, pedophilic Democrats, celebrities, and bankers, hasn’t exactly been the belle of the ball lately.

After QAnon adherents joined riots at the Capitol that killed at least five people on Jan. 6, its world was rocked by the revelation that Donald Trump was not, in fact, planning on launching a coup and arresting Joe Biden on Inauguration Day. Purges of QAnon content on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have intensified to varying degrees in recent months, forcing them to congregate on encrypted messaging apps like Telegram, as well as sites and apps either more welcoming to fringe fascist weirdos or caught off-guard by a surprise influx. Among those were “free speech” enclaves like Gab, a site primarily popular with supremacists; Parler, a Facebook/Twitter clone for conservatives that has since been driven totally offline; and Clapper, a similar knockoff of TikTok popular with right-wingers that we only just learned about because it was apparently also infested by—and has now been forced to ban—QAnon.

“We take this matter very seriously,” Edison Chen, CEO of the company we’ve never even heard of before, told the Verge on Thursday. “After investigating, we decided to take action to remove and ban accounts regarding QAnon and mis-info about vaccines… which are against our mission.”

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“From today, if additional users were to post QAnon-related content, it will be removed,” Chen added. “We have zero tolerance about QAnon.”

QAnon promoters using hashtags banned on other sites like #WWG1WGA and #thestorm had managed to accrue tens of thousands of followers on Clapper, according to the Verge, with one supporter of QAnon-loving Representative Majorie Taylor Greene having nearly 30,000 followers. Clapper appears to have been barely mentioned in media reports before it absorbed an influx of QAnon people, which is pretty bleak.

Here’s a TikTok video summarizing the overall vibe of Clapper, if you must know more.

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Chen had previously told the Verge that while the company never set out to attract conservatives migrating from other wings of the web, it made sense that they were drawn by its promise of less moderation:

“There are lots of conservatives and political people,” Chen told The Verge. “I think they feel less censorship here and they’re kicked out from the other social media platforms. So they come to us, and it brings some opportunity to us but [it] also comes with some challenges.”

… Chen said that Clapper did not set out to be a right-wing conservative political platform, and that the company wants to highlight ordinary users’ lives. “Today’s social media platforms push most traffic to big creators while the creator in the middle and the normal user don’t get the opportunity to speak and be seen,” Chen said.

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(Clapper has released a video denouncing the Jan 6. insurrection and helped the FBI identify one of the rioters, according to the Verge, and said it will expand its moderation team from 10 to around 20, as well as audit all million or so videos on the site for the newly banned content.)

Anyhow, let this be a lesson of sorts to aspiring social media developers: If you don’t have any kind of plan in place to deal with these people, they will come in droves. And that will probably be the first thing anyone learns about your company. Whoops!

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Twitter Wants to Bring Tipping to the Platform

Illustration for article titled Twitter Wants to Bring Tipping to the Platform

Photo: Denis Charlet (Getty Images)

Pretty soon, you might be able to tip your favorite tweeters. Why you’d want to is anyone’s best guess.

On Wednesday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey hinted that this fan-funded model is just one of the potential forms of digital payment that Twitter will be bringing on in the near future. The idea here, at least in theory, makes sense: Twitter is loaded with plenty of hardcore fans of all stripes: there’s armies of Swifties, Barbz, and whatever the hell Elon Musk’s rabid fanbase calls themselves. Some of these people are bound to pay for exclusive access to their celeb of choice.

“I think the first thing we want to focus on is that economic incentive to people who are contributing to Twitter,” Dorsey told the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference. He added that whatever funding model the company eventually goes with, it won’t function alone—these payments would somehow integrate with some of the new features that Twitter’s testing out like Fleets or Spaces.

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Dorsey didn’t go into specifics about what these new subscriptions might look like. In a statement to Gizmodo, a Twitter spokesperson simply said that while the company is “excited about this potential,” it’s also “ important to note we are still in very early exploration and we do not expect any meaningful revenue attributable to these opportunities in 2021.”

“Our main focus continues to be on growing our ads business,” they added.

These potential monetary features are Twitter’s latest attempt to diversify its cash flow into something that isn’t exclusively ad-based. While the Twitter spokesperson added that the company’s “main focus” continues to be its ad business, that business has encountered a few hiccups as of late. Midway through 2020, for example, the company’s ad revenue plummeted partially due to the global pandemic, and partially due to major brands pausing their Twitter ads for one reason or another. In practice, this has translated to Twitter cribbing some from existing platforms, or—like its forthcoming Substack competitor, Revue—simply buying out smaller companies in an attempt to integrate their features onto Twitter.

Twitter Clarifies That Trump Can’t Just Run for President Again to Get His Account Back

Illustration for article titled Twitter Clarifies That Trump Cant Just Run for President Again to Get His Account Back

Photo: Tom Pennington (Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s account is dead, kaput, slain, slaughtered, drawn and quartered, left out to rot and never coming back, according to Twitter.

Twitter addicts are willing to do some frankly disturbing things to get back their accounts after a ban, including switching to alt accounts that also end up banned, launching doomed lawsuits, and chaining themselves to the company’s headquarters. One particularly notorious provocateur even ran for office, apparently in the hopes that being elected would somehow trap the company in a “gotcha” scenario where they would become retroactively eligible for the special treatment Twitter affords to public figures. None of those zany schemes usually pay off, and it would seem they’ll be just as much of a waste of time if Trump attempts them.

During an interview with CNBC on Wednesday, Twitter chief financial officer Ned Segal clarified that the company will never allow @realDonaldTrump to return, even in the dystopian scenario where Trump somehow manages to facehug the nation again in 2024 and inject himself into another term in office.

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“Former President Trump was banned,” Squawk Box host Becky Quick asked Segal. “If he came back, ran for office again, and was elected president, would you allow him back on the platform?”

Segal responded that, “the way our policies work, when you’re removed from the platform, you’re removed from the platform, whether you’re a commentator, you’re a CFO, or you are a former or current public official.”

“Remember, our policies are designed to make sure that people are not inciting violence, and if anybody does that, we have to remove them from the service and our policies don’t allow people to come back,” he added.

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Segal added that Trump’s ban on Jan. 8for inciting riots at the Capitol that killed at least five people and nearly sparked a constitutional crisis—did not actually harm the company in any measurable way, as outraged conservatives warned it would.

“We added 40 million people to our DAU [daily active user count] last year, and 5 million last quarter,” Segal said. “In January, we added more DAU than the average of the last four Januarys, so hopefully that gives people a sense for the momentum we’ve got from all the hard work we’ve done on the service.”

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Trump is now facing trial in the Senate after the House voted to impeach him for a second time over the Capitol riots. While he can no longer be removed from office—as voters already did that—a conviction in the Senate could bar him from holding any federal office in the future . Republicans in the Senate currently appear poised to let Trump off the hook a second time.

But as far as Trump’s infamous account is concerned, it’s over. Totally over. Just so long as some mischievous sex-having teens don’t recite his name three times in front of a dark mirror, a dog doesn’t dig up the ex-president’s cursed iPhone, Jack Dorsey and the entire Twitter moderation team don’t all view a hexed Pepe at once, or some hedge fund guys from the 80s don’t take over Twitter and think reinstating @realDonaldTrump could juice short-term returns. Yep. Over.

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Twitter Blocks Hundreds of Accounts Tied to Protests by Farmers in India

A woman participates in a protest against new farm laws in Mumbai, India, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021.

A woman participates in a protest against new farm laws in Mumbai, India, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021.
Photo: Rafiq Maqbool (AP)

Twitter has blocked the accounts of at least 500 people and groups involved in the current protests by farmers in India at the request of the Indian government, according to a new report from Bloomberg News. Some of the accounts have even been permanently deleted.

The Indian government, led by nationalist figure Prime Minister Narendra Modi, recently demanded that Twitter ban hundreds of accounts, and the social media company finally conceded to most of the demands. Twitter reportedly received a notice that it was not properly complying with a lawful order in India, according to Bloomberg, which could have resulted in jail time for Twitter employees.

India has been embroiled in protests this year by independent farmers who are angry with new laws that they say have benefited large corporate farmers. Farmers with small amounts of land are demanding that three laws be repealed along with the abolishment of rules that favor corporate-owned farmers and the government is upset by the activism they’re doing online.

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India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) demanded a ban on over 1,000 accounts, according to Bloomberg, and it’s still unclear precisely how many have been purged permanently. Some of the accounts are merely being blocked from inside India but can still be viewed in other countries.

Twitter published a blog early Wednesday laying out the actions it took under pressure from the Indian government:

  • We took steps to reduce the visibility of the hashtags containing harmful content, which included prohibiting them from trending on Twitter and appearing as recommended search terms.
  • We took a range of enforcement actions — including permanent suspension in certain cases — against more than 500 accounts escalated across all MeitY orders for clear violations of Twitter’s Rules.
  • Separately, today, we have withheld a portion of the accounts identified in the blocking orders under our Country Withheld Content policy within India only. These accounts continue to be available outside of India. Because we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law, and, in keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians. To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law. We informed MeitY of our enforcement actions today, February 10, 2021. We will continue to maintain dialogue with the Indian government and respectfully engage with them.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment early Wednesday.

This Myspace Reincarnation Is Bringing Me So Much Joy

My Spacehey profile, with images from my high school Photobucket account!

My Spacehey profile, with images from my high school Photobucket account!
Screenshot: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo

Have you heard? The old Myspace is back. Sort of.

Coded entirely by an 18-year-old from Germany named An, Spacehey is near carbon copy of the OG social network’s design in its early 2000s glory days. According to Vice, the new network, which looks entirely like the old network, launched last November and so far has attracted about 55,000 users worldwide.

An told Vice said he wanted to create a social network that offered better privacy and allowed users to be more creative.

“Thanks to older friends and the internet, I heard a lot about [Myspace]. I came to the conclusion that you can’t find something like this nowadays,” said An.

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He spent his free time during quarantine scouring internet archives to make Spacehey look as authentic as possible to the classic version of Myspace.

And he nailed it.

Myspace has been rebooted before, but never with the look and feel of the original. That’s what made it appealing, and Spacehey recreates it almost perfectly.

Spacehey offers a few features the original Myspace lacked, like the option to add links to your other social media profiles on Twitter and other platforms that didn’t exist back then. You can embed content from Spotify and YouTube, which also didn’t exist back then. There’s even a section with pre-made, user-created layouts if you don’t feel like coding everything from scratch—although that’s half the fun of having a Myspace, er, Spacehey.

But all the core elements of classic Myspace are there. Friend space. Blogs. Interests. Comments. Even the little “online now” label. If you’re feeling a little inspired, Spacehey user corentin has a running list of other users who have completely decked out their profiles with fun fonts, bright neon colors, and animations that are almost too nostalgic to handle.

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An says Spacehey is more than just a Myspace clone, though. He’s very active on the platform, responding directly to user complaints and unafraid to throw down the ban-hammer on anyone spreading hate speech and harassment on the network. That’s not only a welcome change of pace in the overall social media landscape, but is also in direct contrast to the approach Facebook and Twitter have taken over the years when dealing with misinformation and hate groups.

Myspace taught my high school self a lot of things. It taught me how to use HTML and that overloading your page with flashy text and auto-playing music made made for a poor user experience. It taught me how to deal with creepers sliding into my DMs. But most of all, it was a much-needed refuge from overbearing parents who liked to snoop through my text messages and listen in on my phone calls when all I wanted was privacy. I’ve been looking for a Facebook alternative for years now, and Spacehey has potential.

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Of course, there are concerns about how viable a throwback to an old social network can be once the novelty of nostalgia wears off. There’s no Spacehey app, for instance, so if you want to access it on your phone you’ll have to use your browser. But I like that. I miss the early days of cell phones that couldn’t connect to the internet, which made it so easy to disconnect from social engagements for days, even weeks at a time. Spacehey could end up being a niche social media platform for a very particular user (say, an older millennial), but that’s OK.

My Spacehey page needs a lot of work. But I’ve been having a great time going through my old Photobucket account, where I saved all the menu and background images I made for my old Myspace. It’s such a unique time capsule of my younger self’s interests: my obsession with CSI, Zach Braff in Garden State (my adult self doesn’t understand that anymore), little icons I made for some of my favorite albums from Icon of Coil, A Perfect Circle, and Don Hertzfeldt’s short film Rejected. I’m still like my teenage self in some ways, but obviously have grown tremendously since then.

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It may not skyrocket to TikTok heights of popularity, but Spacehey is a throwback to when curating a social media profile was fun and creative. And I’m having a blast.

The Dangerous Rise of Very Online Politics

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene speaks during a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol on February 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. The House voted 230 to 199 on Friday evening to remove her from committee assignments over her remarks about QAnon and other conspiracy theories.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene speaks during a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol on February 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. The House voted 230 to 199 on Friday evening to remove her from committee assignments over her remarks about QAnon and other conspiracy theories.
Photo: Drew Angerer (Getty Images)

Last week, the House voted to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee assignments in large part because of what the new Georgia congresswoman posted on social media.

While she was well-known as a QAnon conspiracy theorist before coming to Congress, in recent weeks, we’ve learned Taylor Greene trafficked in an outlandish and anti-Semitic theory that a Jewish-funded space laser started the Camp Fire in 2018. We’ve also learned she said 9/11 was an inside job, school shootings were staged with crisis actors, and that a “bullet to the head would be quicker” than finding another avenue to remove House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

This is the type of stuff seen in the deepest reaches of the online right-wing fever swamp, installed in the halls of power. And you need look no further than the final vote to see that it’s also the future of the Republican Party: 199 of Taylor Greene’s colleagues voted against stripping her assignments, and there’s no signs she faces any consequences beyond having more time to post. It signals a new era of politics, one in which posts echoing the darkest conspiracies for a base poisoned with them is all there is to Republican governance. It may sound hyperbolic, but the rise of the poster-as-politician is one of the greatest threats to democracy, one that could create an unbreakable feedback loop between social media grievances and the highest reaches of power.

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Ahead of the House vote to strip her of her assignments, Taylor Greene spoke on the floor in a poorly performed act of contrition.

“School shootings are absolutely real,” she said, going on to note that “I also want to tell you 9/11 absolutely happened” in what will surely put the issue to bed finally. Yet five hours earlier on Twitter, Taylor Greene was busy posting. On a bright red background designed seemingly to catch the eye, she posted a block of all-caps text stating, “The DC swamp and the fake news media are attacking me because I am not one of them. I am one of you. And they hate me for it” along with how to get text alerts from her.

Rather than contrition over spreading lies and threatening violence or learning from the experience of losing committee assignments, and thus reducing her power to advocate for her constituents in Congress, she turned to what she does best: posting online.

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Taylor Greene is the most extreme example of the rise of the political poster, but she’s hardly alone. There’s Hitler enthusiast Rep. Madison Cawthorne, gun-wielding Rep. Lauren Boebert, movie-making Rep. Dan Crenshaw, and disingenuous Sen. Ted Cruz. What they all have in common is that posting isn’t just part of the job that comes with governance. It is the job.

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Showmanship is, of course, always a part of politics. Whether it’s Sen. James Inhofe bringing a snowball to the Senate floor to “disprove” global warming, Rep. Katie Porter’s whiteboard, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram Live chats and Twitch streams, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren ethering Mike Bloomberg out of existence in a Democratic debate, politicians are after headlines and public opinion. Usually, though, it’s in the service of getting something done (or, in Inhofe’s case, getting nothing done).

The rise of politicians who exist solely to post, though, is something different. Rather than materially improving people’s lives through passing laws and making America a more equitable place, the whole ethos is an endless series of posts, sent like signal flares to the cultural warriors, conspiracy theorists, and white supremacists. To be sure, they do have goals. But effective governance is not one of them.

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President Donald Trump pioneered the poster-as-politician template. Before being booted from social media for inciting a seditious riot at the Capitol, Trump’s Twitter feed offered the broad contours of the consummate poster. There were retweets of people pumping the QAnon conspiracy, a whole back catalog of bad tweets from his pre-politics days, and other incendiary statements. Trump tried on occasion, no matter how ineffectively, to do governance by tweet, but those efforts were typically ham-handed, such as yelling about $2,000 stimulus checks and inviting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to shake his hand. Weird? Sure. But an attempt was made at governance. (And he did get that handshake.)

The Trump template showed how easily posting can warp reality. Take the election results. Trump baselessly claimed for months they were likely to be stolen, his claims churned through the ranks of regular posters on social media, and then echoed back to him. Trump said he was simply looking out for the online patriots, the media largely covered it as just another story, and another layer of normality evaporated into the ether of stupidity, eventually leading to the deadly riot in January.

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In the end, he was undone, in part, by his own posting that inspired a violent insurrection. While there is no shortage of violent tweets even more heinous than stuff Trump said—posts about gassing Jews or killing Democrats, among them—none had Trump’s reach or office. But Trump’s ban from Twitter and other social media platforms showed the theoretical limits of posting (as well as the danger of unregulated large tech companies), which is a huge boon to the posters in Congress. Though none have the reach of Trump nor quite the prestige of the presidency, all still wield considerable power.

And they seem determined to use it to post, make money off posting, and then post some more. Taylor Greene is fundraising off the threat of being expelled for wishing death on the leader of the body she serves in. Or consider Boebert, most famous for posting an ad saying she’d bring her gun to Congress and live tweeting Nancy Pelosi’s exodus from the House floor during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Among her recent tweets are complaining about “fact checkers” refusing to set the record straight about her posts about Pelosi and making a xenophobic “joke” about Rep. Ilhan Omar marrying her brother pulled right from right from right-wing message boards. Pinned to the top of her feed is a post asking for donations pitting her against Democrats and “their radical agenda & unfair attacks.”

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Cawthorn is a relatively “normal” politician by Boebert and Taylor Greene standards. His posts try to present him as a plucky can-do politician with discrete goals tied to governance. But his rise has been driven by his posts, including deceitful claims about training for the Paralympics. Cawthorn’s first tweet after winning was “Cry more, lib.” And in an email obtained by Time, he wrote that “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation.” His merch is also a clear signal to the posters that he’s one of them, including a MAGA-style red hat with “Make Elections Secure Again’’ available for $28.

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There’s Crenshaw’s action video of him parachuting into Georgia to battle antifa and Cruz’s disingenuous “I care about Pittsburgh” schtick and grifting for clout. While all of these people may well pass (or have already passed) legislation, their primary commitment is to being online. Success is not measured solely—or even mostly—in serving constituents. It’s about using their platform and power to amplify the message boards and Discord servers into the mainstream, then fundraise off the incendiary rhetoric so they can keep the culture war going.

Trump showed the outer edges of acceptability in posting that can get you banned if you hold enough power. But the intervening month since the insurrection has shown that with the right mix of plausible deniability, the posts and money can continue—and in some cases grow. While Cruz lost some corporate PAC commitments, he remains a member of the Senate in good standing and is considered a front runner for the Republican presidential primary in 2024. Taylor Greene has claimed to have raked in more than $1.6 million since being called out for her violent and conspiracy-addled posts. As long as there are no financial, electoral, or workplace consequences, the posts will continue.

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“What we’re seeing now is a rehearsal, where the mechanisms of a toxic and inhumane politics are being tested and improved,” Kyle Wagner wrote in a 2014 Deadspin piece that has proved to be one of the most prescient predictions of our current era.

Those same tactics and bad faith grievances are what animate the Republican Party now. Whereas Gamergate was a sloppy mass of people posting, now the mob is more organized and has leaders in the halls of power. It’s also organizing in state houses, governor’s mansions, and attorneys general offices across the country. The Big Lie that the election was marred by fraud started with Trump, echoed through Facebook posts, and followed a recursive path back to power after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton along with 17 other Republican attorneys general challenged the election results. When the suit was tossed by the Supreme Court, it threw another can of gas on the fire that eventually set off the insurrection. Hell, a Huffpost investigation found at least 21 local lawmakers showed up at the insurrection, thanks in part to a number of them posting about being there.

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In another prescient piece in Splinter, Alex Pareene wrote in 2017 of how the Republicans “will continue to field candidates and win elections for the foreseeable future,” but that “the only people entering the Republican party candidate pipeline in the Trump era almost have to be allied with the alt-right, because the alt-right absolutely comprises the only effective and successful youth outreach strategy the GOP currently employs.”

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While he was writing about the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that year, the same premise is true today, except we’ve moved past the alt-right and even further to the fringes with the likes of Taylor Greene taking the party reins. With Republicans set to control redistricting in a number of states and gerrymander in their control further, it’s likely that it will further incentivize fringe internet beliefs to become core parts of the GOP dogma. Remember, no Republicans are showing up in Taylor Greene’s district in an effort to spark a primary challenge, but they are showing up in Rep. Liz Cheney’s because she voted to impeach Trump.

How you shatter the funhouse mirror that connects posters and power is one of the defining issues of our time. Social media has both warped the incentives of politics and pumped a steady stream of poison and lies into our discourse. Democrats and both houses of Congress have signalled democratic reforms are high on the priority list for this session. Among possible fixes are ranked choice voting; Washington, DC; statehood; automatic and same-day voter registration; and other fixes that would bring more people into the political process and reduce the abilities of extremists to hold power.

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Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media companies could also face regulation. How to do that without limiting legitimate speech or putting too much power into the hands of Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey is a delicate balancing act. Among suggestions from a report released late last year are slowing the spread of viral content and reducing the ability to microtarget ads to individuals as means to the prevalence of misinformation. Other proposals include making social media publicly owned utilities, though that raises risks about giving too much power to the government to regulate speech and the public square. What is clear, though, is that the current situation is untenable. Continuing down this path will ensure the public square is taken over by mobs again and again, screaming about Jewish space lasers and lusting for blood, marshalled and egged on by a congresswoman from Georgia, a senator from Texas, and an online economy fueled by the worst posts we can dredge up.