TWENTY-SIX words. That’s all it took to shatter the balance of our public and intellectual life and plunge us into the cauldron of conspiracy, rage and division that goes under the euphemism “social” media.

There is a direct line of accountability between the provisions in the US 1996 Communications Act, that exempted internet companies from responsibility for what is posted on their sites, and the storming of Capitol Hill.

Regulation is now inevitable, and it is questionable whether platforms like Twitter will survive it. One of the biggest political issues of this decade will be how to reform the internet without destroying freedom of speech. How to turn the digital enfant terrible into what internet evangelists envisaged at the birth of web: a means of bringing people together by promoting universal knowledge and understanding.

So how did that dream fail so disastrously? Instead of enlightenment we have rampant conspiracy and abuse; in place of tolerance we have divisive identity politics; instead of a civilised public square, hyper-partisan mobs parading their self-righteousness and seeking heresies to condemn. It can’t go on.

The Herald:

Section 230’s words seemed innocuous: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service,” it ruled “shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Those words destroyed the carefully curated and regulated media universe occupied by newspapers, broadcasting and the publishing industry. The press were never whiter than white, but they did have rules and they were responsible under the law. And it was President Bill Clinton’s law that signed their death warrant.

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Section 230 gave Facebook, Google and Twitter licence that no newspaper enjoys. If The Herald incited violence, or allowed people to incite violence on its pages, it would be held liable. This is because the publisher of content is regarded as equally responsible for what is published. And a great burden it is too. This article, and every comment posted under it, has to be moderated and subjected to rigorous standards of accuracy before it can be published. It’s an expensive and time-consuming business. It is called editing.

There are no editors on Twitter, or the other internet sites. They moderate only after the event, if at all. Thus Facebook, Google and Twitter, in reality the biggest publishers on the planet, are not regarded as publishers at all. This even though they are disseminating massive volumes of content – much of it plagiarised from the conventional media – and earning countless billions in advertising revenues.

The fiction that was perpetrated by Section 230 – at the behest of the tech entrepreneurs – was that Twitter and Facebook are not publications but “neutral platforms”. Their owners said they should be treated like telecoms companies. You wouldn’t expect BT to be responsible for what people say on the telephone, they snorted. Yet private phone conversations are not broadcast to millions, nor can thousands of angry keyboard warriors pile in and abuse you in mid-sentence.

This bogus equivalence is patently ridiculous now that Twitter is effectively editing the President of the United States by banning him. Yet the truth is that these companies have from the start been curating and editing their content, only they do it mostly with pernicious algorithms. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube preselect your feed by recommendation software that offers up more of what it thinks you want to read. Over time you are exposed to more and more extreme versions of your own views while alternative views are filtered out.

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This filter bubble is the basis of the social media business model. They discovered early on that the way to promote traffic, and money, is to promote division, confrontation and abuse, to foster anger and hatred. That is why Twitter allows people to post anonymously – a blatant invitation to abuse. Inevitably, anyone with a public profile – like Meghan Markle or JK Rowling – becomes a target for anonymous bedroom sociopaths who derive excitement from abusing women.

As anyone who posts regularly on Twitter soon discovers, the only way to prevent being bullied by legions of angry keyboard warriors is to cultivate your own team. It’s a defence mechanism. But to keep your team onside, you have to keep reinforcing their narrow political line and you rapidly become a captive. I watched in amazement during Brexit as normally balanced journalists and academics became raging bulls of Brexit or Remain.

Only around three per cent of the population regularly tweet, so this is an entirely self-selecting and unrepresentative sample of voters. Yet politicians and many journalists have become obsessed by Twitter. Our politics has increasingly taken on its contrarian style: cancel culture, misrepresentation, guilt by association ... and when that doesn’t work, defamation and death threats. Politicians must stop regarding Twitter as a guide to public attitudes. At best it is an echo chamber.

Many journalists, myself included, were caught up in filter bubbles through promoting our work. We may think that having 55,000 followers, as I acquired, is something to be proud of, a validation. In fact it is a cage from which it is very difficult to escape. As soon as you start being objective, saying things that deviate from their political line, these followers turn in an instant into a raging mob.

As the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned, a handful of tech billionaires are now being allowed to determine who should be heard on these platforms, a role for which they are manifestly unfit. Big Tech should be broken up to create diversity and allow for democratic regulation. Monopolies like Amazon and Facebook are too powerful and should have no role in deciding what is permitted on the internet. Anonymity must end and Section 230 repealed. Tech barons must be held accountable for perverting public discourse.

Having created a monster in Donald Trump the internet behemoths are belatedly trying to slam the stable door. But in doing so they are only pointing to their own complicity in his rise. If Mr Trump is prosecuted for incitement and insurrection, how does the platform that made him, and made millions from him, remain immune?

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.