No Minister

Stochastic terrorism and S. 230

with 11 comments

You haven’t heard the term Stochastic terrorism?

You will soon enough. It’s becoming a thing among the US Left.

Stochastic refers to a modeling approach using random probability distribution to try and make predictions based on massive amounts of seemingly random data. It’s always been very much a thing in my IT world, particularly with financial markets, but as computer power has increased it’s being used in all sorts of areas.

Including now to predict the likelihood of terrorism being spawned out of massive amounts of online speech. The theory is that although you might not be able to link any particular incident of terrorism to what is said in online platforms, including Social Media sites, you can make a stochastic prediction; with enough speech pushing certain ideas you can predict a certain number of terrorist incidents based on those ideas.

Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.

Therefore it’s entirely logical and Scientific to shut down such speech.

Not just Islamist speech of course, but Right-Wing speech – the sort of thing that leads to events like the January 6 riots in the US Capitol. The link above is to the good old hardline Lefty site The Daily Kos. Here’s more, this time from Australia and dealing with C-19 “conspiracy theories” (at least the ones that have not been proven correct – yet).

You can see how once again The ScienceTM blends so beautifully with Left-Wing desires for control in so many different areas, Amazing how often that happens. And of course it fits with the already long-standing claim that’s been made for years by Leftists, especially with regard to attacks on Muslims, which did have an effect on the likes of David Farrar in the wake of the Christchurch mass shooting, where he tightened up on free speech a lot on Kiwiblog. Clearly he accepted the Left’s argument against him. This didn’t stop Russell Brown from referring to DPF as a “piece of shit” anyway.

So what does this have to do with S.230? Well Section 230 is a part of the United States Communications Decency Act and it was an amendment made in 1996 to help the fledging providers of the World Wide Web get started without getting destroyed by lawsuits about the content they carried:

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.

Which makes sense. Nobody ever went after telephone or telegraph companies with lawsuits just because spies and terrorists had used them to organise their activities – although those companies were and are expected to cooperate with the State where legally criminal actions are being investigated.

But since the advent of Social Media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a host of others in the 2000’s, the problems with S.230 have started to mount as those platforms have started acting like media publishers by censoring the content they carry, using the claim that this is perfectly acceptable private sector behaviour based around their terms of service.

Which is still a good argument – and certainly accepted by many Right-Wingers and Libertarians because Private Sector and CapitalismTM. But it’s becoming harder to sustain in the face of obviously ideological and politically partisan behaviour from these “providers”, where Right-speech gets canned while its mirror-image Left-speech remains up and running. The ongoing fight between Twitter and Libs of Tick Tok (another social media platform) – who do nothing more than link to insane Tik Tok videos put up by US Liberals – is a classic example, with bans and unbans plus threats of legal action from LOTT.

It should be noted that this type of thinking and efforts are now pushing beyond free speech and extending to other human activities on online platforms like the financial transactions site PayPal, fund-raising sites like GoFundMe, or even more traditional places like Visa, which is being pressured by gun-control activists to stop gun owners from using Visa to pay for their stuff.

Meantime, the S.230 protection argument has also started to crack in the face of admitted connections between the US government and the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter as the former attempts to suppress speech it doesn’t approve of – which makes the latter agents of the US government and potentially liable under the 1st Amendment.

And it looks like that’s about to happen, courtesy of a recent court case where the Fifth Circuit Court upheld a Texas law anti-censorship law specifically aimed at Big Tech Monopolists (Professor Margot Cleveland explains the decision in detail at The Federalist). Basically the court had two conflicting legal precedents involved; Miami Herald and Pruneyard Shopping Center.

In Miami Herald, the Supreme Court held that a Florida statute that required newspapers to grant political candidates the right to equal space to reply to criticism violated the First Amendment rights of the publisher. In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court stressed that the newspapers’ decisions concerning the size, content, and treatment of public issues and public officials involved editorial control and judgment protected from state interference by the First Amendment.

The Big Tech Monopolists argued that they’re like newspapers – publishers, not platforms – and therefore cannot be required to air views that conflict with their own editorial position. Of course you should note that this is in explicit contradiction with the idea of being a “platform” for the purposes of S.230.

Conversely, in PruneYard Shopping Ctr. v. Robins, the Supreme Court held that the state could require privately owned shopping centers to allow individuals to distribute political literature without violating the mall owners’ First Amendment rights. In upholding California’s mandate, the high court reasoned that PruneYard did not involve the concerns present in Miami Herald, namely forced speech through the state telling a newspaper what to print.

According to the Supreme Court’s reasoning in PruneYard, allowing access to the mall did not affect the property owner’s speech: The owners were neither forced to communicate a message nor prevented from engaging in their own speech.

So in that case the state can actually require someone maintaining a large public space where people congregate in large groups – to permit people to engage in political messaging.

You think monopoly social media platforms with 50 million+ users count as large public spaces?

And obviously, such Big Tech monopolies are not injured in their ability to get their monopoly message out if TrumpFanboi360 is allowed to say “Hunter Biden is a crackhead whore who sucks Chinese dick for money, plus 10% for ‘The Big Guy'”

The Fifth Circuit’s decision seems pretty solid on those grounds, but this will be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Which is where the other side of the coin comes into play, the Stochastic Terrorism side – and this time with real terrorism:

The Supreme Court said Monday it would take up a case that could fundamentally change the way Google and other tech companies are governed by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects them from lawsuits over content created by users.

In 2015, Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old U.S. citizen studying abroad in France, was murdered by ISIS terrorists who fired into a crowed bistro in Paris. Her family filed suit against Google, arguing that YouTube, which Google owns, aided and abetted the ISIS terrorists by allowing and promoting ISIS material on the platform with algorithms that helped to recruit ISIS radicals.

Uh Oh! This is a case where S.230 should apply as it was originally intended, immunity.

But it’s possible that SCOTUS will over-affirm that point, and wind up granting these monopolies the power they claim they have, which is an unrestricted right to censor – whether in good faith or bad – without any liability whatsoever, and to make what are clearly publisher decisions, including about what stories to elevate and which to suppress and what headlines they themselves write with total immunity afforded to no other publisher in the world.

And of course the argument that “the algorithms must be changed to stop speech that ’causes harm” is the leftist censor mafia’s entire argument, and that is the central legal claim of this case. If the family pressing the lawsuit wins on its theory that the tech companies are at fault for not tweaking their “algorithms” to suppress “harmful content,” then all the tech companies will say that their censorship of “anti-trans“, “anti-gay“, “anti-woman“, “anti-minority“, “anti-Muslim“, “anti-Covid-19 measures”, “anti-Carbon Zero”, and anti-anything-they-don’t-like-content – is no longer just their choice but required by the Supreme Court.

It’ll be interesting to see if both of these cases are pulled together by SCOTUS, given their overlapping demands and timing. A good outcome might be for the Court to affirm that S.230 immunizes platforms against harms caused by the writings of third parties – but then adds dicta (advisories not directly related to the case or necessary to the ruling) that such immunity is available only to platforms when behaving as platforms, and only when they are acting in good faith, and using acts like the Texas anti-censorship law to support all that.

See also this article, published after my post, and note:

When it comes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, consider the preambulatory language in statutory subsection (a)(3): “The Internet and other interactive computer services offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.” 

The inclusion of the “whether or not such material is constitutionally protected” language is also unconstitutional, and the federal courts should hold as much. “It is axiomatic,” the Supreme Court said in 1973’s Norwood v. Harrison, that the government “may not induce, encourage or promote private persons to accomplish what it is constitutionally forbidden to accomplish.” 


Written by Tom Hunter

October 4, 2022 at 11:18 am

11 Responses

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  1. Tom, a fairly hard read but I got through it – twice.

    You appear to be arguing that the large on-line outfits’ owners should be, in some circumstances, denied their rights and benefits as owners.

    While the internet and on-line interaction, still in it’s infancy, has developed an undoubted left-wing bias it is up to the right to create and nurture a competing space, not to force the current lot to donate part of theirs to the cause.

    Free speech must be defined by the first word even if, until it matures, those of us on the right hate it.


    October 4, 2022 at 12:22 pm

    • Not as simple as it might seem, Tinman.

      For instance, these platforms act as public spaces. However, they are able to kick people off them if they don’t like what they say. A cafe owner won’t remove you if they don’t like your opinion, even if you are in his cafe; yet Facebook, Twitter do so, not only with impunity in many cases, but with full support of various governments.

      The paradigm has expanded into another dimension, with not enough understanding of all the factors, and therefore simplistic arguments (such as ownership) don’t apply in the same way. Including the concept that everyone who participates online ends up being part of the product – all our output, interactions, etc, are given up for free to these guys. In other words, we become the part of what they own.

      Lucia Maria

      October 4, 2022 at 2:23 pm

      • Hogwash!

        Private companies have the right, by the fact of their ownership, to do what they want as far as censorship etc.

        If you don’t like a cafe you don’t return, make your own coffee and cake.

        So too it must be for ALL businesses, at least until they make using facetwit etc. compulsory.

        Create your own twitbook and make it attractive enough to ensure people want to use it.

        I notice Trump and co. recognise this fact and are trying to do exactly that – a new platform started last week from memory.

        THAT is the only way for freedom, of speech, action, thought.


        October 4, 2022 at 2:38 pm

      • What if:
        * Airlines decided that they won’t fly anyone with a right-wing opinion?
        * Private bus companies decided that they won’t take elderly women over the age of 70?
        * Supermarkets decided not to allow children under the age of 18 to enter?

        And what if there was only one airline, one private bus company and one supermarket chain? Oh, we could just start up our own variation of the above when they have morphed into huge monopolies?

        These online entities are acting in concert, with government direction and therefore much of the censorship is layered with the pretense that it’s their own editorial decision, when it most likely is not.

        What happens with a lot of censorship is that it’s invisible. People just randomly disappear from online spaces, as do various opinions. Because things disappear, they are not as obvious (and therefore noisy and disturbing) as preventing a person from entering, or removing a person from a physical space.

        Rather than pressuring the tech companies to censor, governments could have instead been doing the opposite, and forcing them to maintain access to all, with only slight limitations of those who actively calling for violence. It’s been a long, slow grind, but here we are now, where it appears the companies are acting on their own volition (which they might be – this might have been the plan all along), but they also now have the excuse that the government made them do it.

        Just wait until we can’t even have this sort of conversation, because that is where it is heading.

        Lucia Maria

        October 4, 2022 at 3:00 pm

    • This just in from Libertarian legal writers The Volokh Conspiracy, published in the very Libertarian magazine Reason, Big Tech’s Chickens Coming Home to Roost:

      Just to remind us why everyone hates Big Tech’s content practices, we do a quick review of the week’s news in content suppression.

      That’s just one week and it shows that we are way beyond “denied their rights and benefits as owners” territory.

      Tom Hunter

      October 5, 2022 at 7:17 am

  2. Would this be caught in these algorithms?

    Inducing fear seems the intent


    October 4, 2022 at 2:08 pm

    • From memory Professor Thick-as-a-… has been doom-mongering for the duration.

      I suspect this is just a reporter(?) with column inches to fill rather than anything that will be noticed by anyone looking to steer an audience.


      October 4, 2022 at 2:28 pm

    • Michael Wank’s fifteen minutes is on the wane but he will milk it for every bit of attention he can before he fades into obscurity.


      October 4, 2022 at 5:51 pm

  3. Computer modelling scared the crap out of every one with regards to covid and climate change, so I don’t take this new technology seriously. It’s just another reason to abandon electronic devices and social media, etc, least they end up been used against you.


    October 4, 2022 at 2:31 pm

  4. The Chinese must love their TikToc tool. A direct line to western (no) brains.


    October 4, 2022 at 3:39 pm

  5. A more extensive list than what I covered in my post

    This I did not know about S.230:

    When it comes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, consider the preambulatory language in statutory subsection (a)(3): “The Internet and other interactive computer services offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.” (Emphasis added.) The infamous extra-legal immunity provision in statutory subsection (c) is thus part of an implicit quid pro quo, seen in statutory subsection (a), that the tech platforms will offer a “true diversity of political discourse.” Big Tech has lost that “quid,” and we must now reform the “quo.” We should statutorily replace the language in § 230 (c)(2)(A) to implement a First Amendment standard, thereby conditioning the receipt of the (c)(2) extra-legal immunity on the idea that the tech platforms cannot censor any speech that would be protected from government censorship if it were said on a public sidewalk

    So even their current claims of breaching their Terms of Service could be argued to be breaching S.230.

    Tom Hunter

    October 6, 2022 at 5:56 pm

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