CBS Airs 60 Minutes Episode Poorly Attacking Section 230

60 Minutes, one of CBS’s best known television program, took a huge credibility hit after launching a weak attack against Section 230.

It all seemed so professional looking. The ticking of the clock for the intro’s, the bringing of experts, the interviews, and the clean editing. Then, what followed was a stunning attack on Section 230 – the Internet’s free speech law. While it was a program that billed itself as an argument against Section 230, what made this episode particularly egregious is that the argument was so weak, that some are calling it anti-Section 230 propaganda.

The show itself is called “The Argument Against Section 230” and wound up being the lead segment for those who caught the episode over the air. For those on CBS “All Access”, it is also available for streaming.

So, what was the argument that was presented? Part of it comes from someone who has been harassed by online trolls. A cycling athlete had a crash during a race. Conspiracy theorists reportedly concluded that the cyclist is responsible for the spread of COVID-19. As a result, she had been receiving death threats along with other harassing messages reportedly from anonymous individuals. Obviously, the theory is completely bunk and the individual, unfortunately, got attacked based on false rumors and lies. She tried to report these threats to law enforcement, but got nowhere. She is also unable to litigate as well.

It’s a tragic story to say the least. No one wants to be threatened by people who were convinced by lies online. No one deserves this either. At this point, you might be asking what this has to do with Section 230. After all, Section 230 simply says that online platforms are not automatically liable for the illegal actions of their users. The liability falls on the individual. The answer is, nothing it all. Yet, the producers seemed to be trying desperately to tie this to Section 230. The voice over tried to explain that there are no repercussions for those making these baseless attacks because of Section 230.

This is not to say there isn’t a debate in all of this. In fact, there are plenty of ways to debate this issue. The immediately obvious one is why is law enforcement unable to investigate a credible threat against an individual online? Another very reasonable debate is what role can social media play to prevent such harassing behavior? How about this: Are social media platforms doing enough to enforce their own Terms of Service (ToS)? Why not the angle of asking whether or not law enforcement can coordinate with social media platforms to track down people who are in clear violation of the law (and, if so, at what capacity and is it sufficient)?

All of the above are very legitimate debates to be had over situations like this. In fact, there are probably plenty of others to be had as well. The problem is that non of those debates legitimately tie in Section 230 because Section 230 is unrelated to this.

To make the argument even weaker, by the end of the program, the not-so-anonymous “Internet troll” was banned on the platform in question. That is with Section 230 in place. It almost cemented the conclusion that Section 230 is working as intended and it wouldn’t have made a difference in this case.

Others were interviewed as well. Each interview did show what problems can arise from those spreading lies and the consequences some individuals faced. The same problems kept cropping up again and again. The relevance of Section 230 in each case is virtually non-existent.

Supposedly, the producers tried to offer the counterpoint part way through. So, they brought in an expert to offer his knowledge on the subject. Unfortunately, all that was aired was, for the most part, a textbook definition of the law and what the law does. That explanation wound up being largely ignored throughout the rest of the program.

Even more bizarrely, at the end of the segment, 60 Minutes notes that efforts to reign in “big tech” has been underway by of the government filing lawsuits. Why this was even brought up in the first place can only be left to speculation. The only way we can think of is that the angle of big tech being this great evil was utilized. As a result, these government lawsuits are going to try and write some wrongs committed by big tech. The thing is, the lawsuits have absolutely nothing to do with Section 230, online harassment, or even content moderation to begin with.

What the lawsuits are actually about is anti-trust issues. In all, we are aware of 4 anti-trust lawsuits. Three of them are against Google and one of them is against Facebook. The first lawsuit was filed in October of last year and filed by the Department of Justice. That lawsuit is about, among other things, how Google is chosen as a default search engine by various browsers.

A second anti-trust lawsuit was filed by state attorneys general who allege that Google manipulated its search engine to disadvantage rivals. We found out later that the lawsuit targets it ad networks and how Facebook and Google worked too closely together to help maintain their dominance in this area.

Meanwhile, the third anti-trust lawsuit was filed by a number of state attorneys general and alleges that Google leveraged its services to bolster its own product line to the detriment of competition.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit against Facebook was filed by the FTC. The lawsuit alleges that Facebook bought up companies like WhatApp and Instagram to keep competition at bay and maintain their dominance.

Now, keeping all of that in mind, feel free to explain to us what any of this has to do with Section 230, online harassment, Internet trolling and disinformation. As far as we are concerned, it’s a set of completely separate issues.

So, the question is, what did 60 Minutes get wrong? First of all, the insinuation that Section 230 prevents or blocks police investigations into online harassment is incorrect. Second: the insinuation that Section 230 stops lawsuits being filed against individuals using a platform is incorrect. Third: The insinuation that platforms are completely immune from litigation in all circumstances is incorrect. Fourth: The insinuation that Section 230 is solely responsible for online misinformation is incorrect. Fifth: The suggestion that nothing can be taken down because of Section 230 is not only incorrect, but the program wound up debunking itself by noting that harassing material was, in fact, taken down.

Apart from the textbook definition of Section 230 (which was, unfortunately, represented as a “view” by those who support the law), the program did get one other thing correct: without Section 230, the large platforms wouldn’t exist. In fact, American based online platforms of all sizes would simply cease to exist without Section 230. This is because allowing any user to post on the platform while the platform takes all the liability would be a really bad business model in the long run (or even a non-profit model for that matter). Because of that, free speech would, at best, struggle hard to survive online in the United States.

The program, from our perspective, was so bad, we actually notified Mike Masnick of Techdirt of this on the extremely unlikely chance he hadn’t heard about it. Masnick, for his part, already knew about the program and told us that he intended on writing an article about it. By the next day, he followed through on that comment. In the article, Masnick wrote that the segment is “Pure Misleading Moral Panic”. More from the article:

It’s almost difficult to describe just how bad the 60 Minutes segment is. It is, quite simply, blatant disinformation. I guess somewhat ironically, much of the attack on 230 talks about how that law is responsible for disinformation. Which is not true. Other than, perhaps, this very report that is itself pure disinformation.

What’s most astounding about the piece is that almost everything it discusses has nothing to do with Section 230. As with so many 230 stories, 60 Minutes producers actually seem upset about the 1st Amendment and various failures by law enforcement. And somehow… that’s the fault of Section 230. It’s somewhat insane to see a news organization like 60 Minutes basically go on an all-out assault on the 1st Amendment.

It’s pure propaganda. And it’s an online piece that seems to be suggesting (falsely) that without 230, we’d no longer have misinformation online. It’s bonkers.

And, finally, it’s insane that a news organization like CBS, which has faced many defamation cases over the years, is more or less promoting more defamation cases. I’ve never quite seen anything like it. But CBS/Viacom and 60 Minutes should be ashamed of putting on this garbage. It’s not informing people. It’s misinforming them.

Masnick was able to go into further detail about the segment and why it’s absolute garbage.

At this point, some are speculating that this was intentionally misleading for political reasons. After all, Democrats seem intent on re-opening Section 230 and weakening it in a weird attempt to fight misinformation.

For us, this latest incident also raises another issue: misinformation pushed by traditional broadcast news sources. This really is far from the first time we’ve encountered misinformation pushed by traditional broadcast media outlets.

One example is how warrantless wiretapping is simply a law enforcement thing that is necessary (it’s also a major privacy issue as well as a constitutional question about unreasonable search and seizure among other things). Another example is how piracy is killing the entertainment industry, that there is no debate on ratcheting up copyright laws, and that if something isn’t done soon, the whole industry will cease to exist (the industry is still alive, one download does not mean one lost sale, and there are loads of concern about the adverse affects of ratcheting up copyright laws). One famous example is how video games are supposedly going to turn teenagers into murdering psychopaths (scientific literature is, at best, split on whether that is even a real thing).

In fact, it was shenanigans like that that ultimately helped create sites like Slyck and Zeropaid in the first place all those years ago. Media outlets were simply not understanding the issues and regurgitating press releases without even remotely acknowledging the other side of the debate. It was (and still is) up to people like myself, Slyck, and ZeroPaid to try and set the record straight.

Of course, traditional broadcast outlets often try to repeatedly push the narrative that disinformation is solely an Internet problem. The solution from them, obviously, is to watch all those responsible organizations to not only debunk those myths, but also be the adult in the room to report news accurately. After all, these organizations have editorial boards, editors, and plenty of people to ensure their organization is on the straight and narrow.

The problem is that when they pull stunts like this latest egregious example, it blows that narrative straight out of the water and makes it look even more like traditional media outlets are no better than your random Internet user. They may get some things right and they may get some things wrong. Sometimes, they can even be real dicks about it too. What really puts the cherry on the hypocritical cake is when newscasters sit there behind that fancy desk and smugly say, “Yeah, don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.” That alone justifies the anger when these same people find themselves being part of the problem of misinformation.

The disturbing part in all of this is that there are people out there who will believe everything this segment said at face value. People are going to believe that Section 230 is the sole reason that online harrassment and misinformation exists today and that it needs to be revoked. They are going to justify this belief because there was an editorial process to make sure everything is correct. They are going to also justify this belief because it is a news special and that reporters actually dug deep into the story to understand every nuance to this story.

For us who actually know about these issues, we know for a fact that this clearly did not happen. As a result, there are going to be people who will look at people like us fully explaining the issue and think, “Well, 60 Minutes had a different take, so clearly you are wrong” or “you are just a partisan hack who doesn’t know what they are talking about.” So, when we see what some are describing as a hit piece, it makes our jobs more difficult. That, in turn, justifies why people like us are angry that this even happened. What’s worse is that this didn’t just air in the United States, but also Canada as well (which is why I ended up writing about it in the first place). Who knows how many other countries this segment aired in?

If the people who think that this is intentionally misleading are correct, then most of this article will not matter to the producers of the show. The facts didn’t matter. The counterpoints did not matter. What matters is an agenda was set and that there will be people who will conclude that Section 230 needs, at the very least, serious reform to cure society of so many ills. Who cares what the fallout will be as a result of this? The message was sent and the job was done. I personally really really hope that this is not the case here. At this stage, I can’t say that this is definitely not what happened here based on what I saw. Just look at some of the responses on Techdirt to see what I mean when I talk about people thinking this misinformation was intentional.

Regardless of where the truth lies in how this all happened in the first place, perhaps we can go ahead and rely on a different quip, “Use your head and don’t believe everything you see on TV.”

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.



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