Facebook isn’t the only cacophonous informational ecosystem undermining our democracy

By Janine Zacharia | Oct. 24, 2021

Earlier this month, former Facebook data scientist turned whistle-blower Frances Haugen detailed how the social media company knowingly makes decisions that undermine our democracy in its quest for “astronomical profits.”

“They want you to believe … in order to share fun photos of your kids with old friends, you must also be inundated with misinformation … that’s not true,” Haugen told the a Senate subcommittee in testimony that followed her leak of thousands of pages of internal Facebook research to the Wall Street Journal and a “60 Minutes” interview. “These problems are solvable … Facebook chooses profit over safety every day.”

Haugen’s revelations enraged legislators, who called for subpoenas and debated — yet again — possible regulatory fixes. They also prompted another round of doomsday predictions about Facebook’s fate (in an obvious bit of damage control, the company is now planning a rebrand) and probably led some, worn down by the endless news of malfeasance, to finally delete their accounts.

The exhaustive focus on Facebook is understandable and justified, given its size and impact. But this outsized scrutiny has allowed another set of key actors in a similarly cacophonous, largely unregulated, for-profit, information ecosystem to go underinvestigated — the cable, satellite and streaming television companies that also host incendiary content.

Fox News, One America News Network and Newsmax (the latter two are far-right channels that began broadcasting in 2013 and 2014, respectively; OAN, with help from AT&T, is owned by Robert Herring Sr. and his sons, and Christopher Ruddy owns Newsmax) form a collective alternative universe that amplified President Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud and helped prolong this horrible pandemic by playing down the severity of COVID-19, promoting fake cures and turning vaccination and masking into a partisan battle.

After months of spreading the “Stop-the-Steal” mantra that led to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, One America News Network’s Pearson Sharp suggested that “traitors” he said “meddled” with the election to bring down Trump should be killed. “What are the consequences … what happens to them?” he asked. “Well, in the past, America had a very good solution or dealing with such traitors — execution.” (Sharp later denied he was calling for executions.)

In February, U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney, both California Democrats, citing research that these channels were “vectors of spreading misinformation” about the election and COVID-19, wrote to 12 cable and satellite companies and streaming services to inquire about their policies.

Their questions included: What moral or ethical principles are applied when deciding if to carry — or when to take adverse action against — a channel? Are there any content guidelines? How many subscribers watched Fox News, Newsmax and One America News Network between Election Day and the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection? What steps were taken “to monitor, respond to, and reduce the spread of disinformation, including encouragement or incitement of violence?”

In response to Eshoo’s and McNerney’s questions, Republicans cried censorship. Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who pushed the canard that Biden didn’t actually win the election, demanded a hearing on “cancel culture.” An editorial in Eshoo’s district newspaper, the Palo Alto Daily Post, suggested Eshoo’s “unforced error” would “escalate” the discussion that, at 78 years old, she should retire.

But Eshoo and McNerney were skewered for asking questions that we should, in fact, all be asking — namely, how these companies see their responsibility when the channels they host are peddling dangerous falsehoods that are eroding our democracy.

Earlier this month, I obtained all 12 yet-to-be-released company replies. Reading their letters the answer became clear to me: They see none.

While most condemned the attack on the Capitol, and decried forces that seek to undermine our democracy, they also shirked any responsibility.

“The agreements do not place Altice in a position to exercise editorial discretion over particular content carried on the channels or to drop the channels or networks altogether during their term,” wrote Paul Jamieson, vice president for government affairs and policy for Altice USA, the New York-based cable provider that carries Fox News and Newsmax to millions of subscribers in 21 states via Optimum and Suddenlink.

Verizon’s senior vice president for federal government relations, Robert Fisher, wrote that he was unable to discuss specific terms of agreements because of confidentiality provisions and likewise could not provide viewership data. “The programmer decides what content it will or will not carry and whether to remove content from its network,” he wrote.

Most of the replies were cordial and at least paid lip service to the notion that they understood the magnitude of the problem we face societally. But Hulu President Kelly Campbell took offense.

“While we certainly respect the right of any citizen, including government officials, to express views about our programming decisions, we are deeply troubled by requests by government officials for detailed explanations about editorial decisions,” Campbell wrote.

As a journalist, however, I was deeply troubled to see a tech company CEO lecture two veteran members of Congress about freedom of speech and to balk at mere questioning. What job do members of Congress have if not to protect our democracy and seek information that could help inform their decision-making on issues of national import?

This isn’t about freedom of the press. It is about what we, as a society, are going to do about a very complex disinformation ecosystem. Some legal experts, free speech advocates and net neutrality proponents, like the companies themselves, might recoil at Verizon or Roku or any other provider discriminating between content, preferring to see them treated as common carriers. But can we at least agree that the role these companies have in our undermining our democracy should be part of the national discussion alongside Facebook’s?

It is no doubt a very blunt instrument to drop a channel, the way Apple’s app store decided to remove (temporarily) the right-wing social networking service, Parler. But it’s not too blunt to ask these powerful corporations to draft a set of transparent guidelines that take our democracy into account.

Where is it written there that a private television company must host content that is strewn with falsehoods? Severing ties with disinformation brokers wouldn’t be censorship or partisan. It would be a bold act of corporate social responsibility.

You don’t see the same problems on CBS, NBC or ABC, which the Federal Communications Commission oversees. But there is no similar authority over the cable channels since they don’t use the public airwaves.

Perhaps there should be.

Cable and satellite channel providers should consult with companies that also tried — and failed — to remain neutral.

YouTube was a “great partner … in identifying and stopping misinformation from flourishing,” Michigan’s secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, said at an Oct. 6 panel hosted by UC Irvine’s School of Law on disinformation and elections. “I’d like to see some of that leadership from some of the other outlets.”

Any information company can articulate a clear set of principles that will guide their decisions on who they will host and act on them. They can explain why they continue to sign contracts with “purported news outlets” that “have long been misinformation rumor mills and conspiracy hotbeds that produce content that leads to real harm,” as Eshoo and McNerney wrote.

The companies’ responses, however, indicate that without pressure, most won’t do anything. They won’t cut ties with a channel that suggested Democrats be executed, or others that pushed lies about the election that contributed to a deadly insurrection that even now continue to spread falsehoods about COVID-19, because a large number of their subscribers would be enraged if they did.

But, given the stakes, we should demand a more thoughtful discussion of why they won’t.

“Dipped into a few mins of Fox News tonight,” PBS NewsHour’s William Brangham recently tweeted. “The lies about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines were coming fast and furious. Hard to see how we’re gonna solve any of our problems when gaslighting is so profitable.”

By now, we can say unequivocally that Facebook cannot be counted on to reform on its own. At the same time, all Americans should ask the CEOs of AT&T, Dish, Roku, Comcast and the rest how they see their responsibility regarding the content they host. Because, as it stands, we are all subsidizing dangerous lies with our monthly subscriptions.