Ostensibly, Thursday's U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing was intended to be an assessment of what social media platforms are doing, and what they ought to be doing better, as mass shootings and the monsters who commit them continue to rain tragedy on communities around the world.
That is to say, when representatives for Google, Twitter and Facebook are gathered before lawmakers for the topic of “violence, extremism and digital responsibility,” you might expect there to be some cogent question-asking on any of those three subjects. But as is often the case when Congress attempts to look tough on Big Tech, the hearing rapidly devolved into unrelated partisan grandstanding and an embarrassing lack of technical understanding.
Republicans brought up Section 230 and Twitter’s decision to briefly lock Mitch McConnell’s account; U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat, insisted a Facebook exec tell her how 8chan — the extremist imageboard she repeatedly and erroneously referred to as a “darkweb” site — ought to be legislated, for reasons unknown.
In short: a total embarrassment of a hearing that touched little on the actual issues of radicalisation online and the real-world violence it can foster.
Partly to blame though was the existence of the hearing itself. While there are undeniable pockets of violent shitheels all over the web, and companies more interested in profit than user safety often do little to police them, is the premise that platform inaction is the foremost cause of mass shootings a valid one?
“I’m not gonna say that there’s no connection, but every other country on the planet has social media, video games, online harassment, hate groups, crime and mental health issues. But they don’t have mass shootings like we do,” U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth said this morning. “Nothing highlights the absurdity of Congress’s inability to solve the gun violence crisis like seeing 318 mass shootings in 260 days and then holding a hearing on extremism in social media.”
And she’s quite right. Accompanying her comments were three charts, blown up and printed on posterboard, showing:
Americans do not spend an exceptional amount of time on social media
Americans do spend a comparatively greater amount of time playing video games, but that...
Neither of those numbers are remotely proportionate with the number of gun deaths — a figure which tracks most closely with (and now might be a good time to feign shock if you’ve looked at the news at any point since Columbine) the number of guns people own in the U.S.
“As we’re reminded daily, the world is full of individuals who use social media platforms to disparage others, cast false equivalencies, and question facts [...] The internet has emboldened and empowered hate by allowing individuals to develop online communities and share their warped ideas — but it is our weak gun laws here in the U.S. that allows that hate to become lethal,” said Duckworth, a veteran whose time served in combat overseas left her with considerable experience with guns and resulted in the loss of her legs.
“The Dayton shooter had a 100-round drum. I didn’t have a 100-round drum when I served in Iraq! We didn’t send Marines into Fallujah with 100-round drums,” she added.
As George Selim, senior vice president of programs at the Anti-Defamation League, who also testified this morning, pointed out repeatedly that “73 per cent of extremist-related murders and homicides were in fact committed with firearms.”
Loathe as I am to let Twitter, Facebook, or Google off easy for any reason — all have done plenty to make the world a dumber, angrier, more needlessly surveilled place — but Duckworth is right: Better machine learning tools to flag ISIS videos and more moderators to police incel forums isn’t going to stop radicalised pieces of shit from putting bullets into strangers if the bullets are easy to come by.
The only question Duckworth asked of the companies’ representatives was if they were aware of “specific trends” that would explain the amount of gun violence here. None said they were because the obvious unifying quality of mass shootings isn’t Facebook, it’s the presence of and easy access to firearms.