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FCC Chairman Pai is swiping again at tech, Twitter and social media — this time for the spread of ‘harassment’ and ‘vitriol’

It comes a day after Pai essentially charged that web giants threatened speech online.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Chip Somodevilla / Getty

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Wednesday lamented the “harassment” and “threats” and “unfiltered rage” that often dominate social media, concluding he didn’t have an answer as to whether it had actually resulted in any “net benefit to American society.”

Speaking at an event in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, the Republican leader of the telecom agency said sites like Twitter do have some positive effects — including the “groundswell” in users recently tweeting #MeToo to shed light on sexual assault.

But he still acknowledged that social media had “downsides,” from the infusion of politics in “everything from entertainment awards shows to natural disasters” to the fact that “anonymity has made our discourse nastier.” It marked the second time in as many days that Pai had taken direct aim at Twitter and other tech giants, questioning the effects of their powerful, all-encompassing platforms.

“In a way, one could say that ‘social media’ is perhaps the most inapt phrase ever coined,” Pai said, per remarks shared early with Recode. “It allows us to stay in touch while keeping a distance. It has sped the breakdown in human interaction. It has fed the unfiltered id at the expense of genuine understanding. And it has to some extent enabled the worst of human impulses — the drive to associate only with one’s own and to exclude the ‘other.’”

“And this drive can spill from the virtual world to the real one,” Pai later added. “If you want to know where it leads, try visiting a college campus these days wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat.”

Pai’s comments — made during an appearance at an event hosted by The Media Institute — come at a time when the whole of Washington, D.C., is grappling with the power of Facebook, Google, Twitter and other tech giants, and the ways they surface content for users or serve as conduits for information, sometimes fake or harmful.

But the FCC chairman’s recent comments about Silicon Valley have been especially sharp. Just a day earlier, Pai charged that Web giants actually posed an immense threat to speech online — particularly because sites like Twitter have “a viewpoint” and they “use that viewpoint to discriminate.” The rebuke came as Pai sought to make the case for repealing the U.S. government’s net neutrality rules.

“And unfortunately, Twitter is not an outlier,” Pai said during the speech. “Indeed, despite all the talk, and all the fear, that broadband providers could decide what internet content consumers can see, recent experience shows that so-called edge providers are in fact deciding what content they see. These providers routinely block or discriminate against content they don’t like.”

On Wednesday, though, Pai continued his onslaught, pointing to other ills on Twitter and social media writ large. The FCC chairman said he and his family recently had felt a great degree of “vitriol” — a reflection, though he didn’t mention it, of the online and physical protests targeting his net neutrality repeal.

“This unprecedented medium for collaboration and connecting people feels like it’s dividing us and driving us apart,” he said.

Pai took great care to note that social media had rescuers respond to Hurricane Harvey in Houston, for example, while tech had enabled “telehealth” services in Virginia. But he still lamented that “everything nowadays is political” — including, to Pai, the pressure on stars like Taylor Swift to talk about those issues. Noting he no longer had a Facebook account, the FCC chairman said that “happy timelines” on the site “changed dramatically in the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.”

“Where does America go from here? I certainly don’t have a magic solution,” he said. “But what I do know is that we can’t allow the strident rudeness of an angry few to overwhelm what I continue to believe is the quiet decency of most Americans.”

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