The two eternal questions of Russia’s pre-1917 revolutionary movements were: who is to blame? what is to be done? Astonishingly, those same questions were reverberating around Washington on Wednesday night as shocked Americans struggled to explain the causes and consequences of the mob’s storming of Capitol Hill.
Fingers were quickly pointed at the tech platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, which have served as President Donald Trump’s digital megaphones. Social media has been widely blamed for polarising political opinion, normalising extremism and mobilising violent protest.
Chris Sacca, a prominent tech investor, even accused Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executives of Twitter and Facebook respectively, of having blood on their hands. “For four years you’ve rationalised this terror. Inciting violent treason is not a free speech exercise,” he tweeted.
In response to the violence, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube locked Mr Trump’s accounts and removed or qualified some of his posts. Many would argue that they have been four years too late given that Mr Trump has continually flouted their user rules throughout his presidency.
Renewed calls to tame the platforms’ influence will doubtless intensify and pressure will build to revoke Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which gives internet companies blanket immunity for user-generated content posted on their sites. President-elect Joe Biden has already declared his support for such a move.
But we should not rush to judgment and execution. There is a lot of blame to hand around, and the kneejerk solutions may not be as straightforward as they seem.
For sure, Mr Trump has weaponised the social media platforms. With 89m followers on Twitter and 35m on Facebook, he has been able to speak directly to his supporters, framing issues in his own way.
But a study by the Harvard Berkman Klein Center has challenged the idea that social media is the primary vehicle for disinformation. In analysing allegations of voter mail-in fraud ahead of the presidential election, researchers studied 55,000 online media stories, 5m tweets and 75,000 Facebook posts.
They concluded that this controversy was part of a systematic disinformation campaign drummed up by Mr Trump and Republican party leaders, amplified by many traditional media outlets. Fox News, the rightwing network run by Rupert Murdoch, was far more influential in spreading false beliefs than Russian trolls or Facebook clickbait artists.
“Our findings suggest that this highly effective disinformation campaign, with potentially profound effects for both participation in, and the legitimacy of, the 2020 election, was an elite-driven, mass-media led process. Social media played only a secondary role,” the report concluded.
In this sense, Mr Murdoch is more to blame for the latest disorder than Mr Dorsey or Mr Zuckerberg. There is also evidence to suggest that the insurgents in Washington had largely moved off Facebook and Twitter to alternative platforms and sites, such as Parler, Gab, Telegram and TheDonald.win.
The Coalition for a Safer Web, a Washington-based advocacy group, has for weeks been warning of the dangers posed by these sites. It has explicitly called for the repeal of Section 230 to help defang them.
But it is worth thinking about the law of unintended consequences. Perversely, removing the immunity from liability might only reinforce the dominance of Facebook and Twitter. All online sites would, in effect, have to assume responsibility for filtering information. But many challengers could not afford the moderation or legal exposure, and would fold.
Repeal of Section 230 might also kill off valuable user-generated services. Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, has argued that the online encyclopedia could not survive without such liability protections.
Jeff Kosseff, a legal scholar and author of Section 230’s “biography”, argues that reform would be better than repeal. He told me that a congressional commission should investigate how best to amend the measure. Exemptions already exist for copyright, federal criminal law and sex trafficking. In what ways can these exceptions be broadened to counter extremism?
In answer to the eternal questions, there is one clear and one highly contested answer. Who is to blame? Mr Trump and his political and media enablers. What is to be done? Rethink the limits of free speech.