In the course of my (checks Screen Time… oh god…) two to four hours of Twitter use per day, I come across a few morsels that get stuck in my teeth and end up on my mind far longer than the average aphorism or bit of news.
Today that morsel came from the editor in chief of an established progressive publication I will decline to name to avoid drama. Capping a tweetstorm on the latest talking point of the day, that Facebook is having trouble filling the “Today In” feature with local news due to the decline of local newspapers, this editor wrote:
These platforms are:
*destabilizing democratic governments
*promoting hate and division of all kinds
*spreading anti-vax and other dangerous medical and scientific falsehoods
So when the world is a charred lump, you can tell the straggling survivors why you just had to vest.
For whatever reason, this brought to mind a random tweet by the Finance Twitter pundit modest proposal:
I'd say 90% of the time you read about the impact e.g. Amazon or Facebook is having on society, you should replace the company name with the words "the internet"
Ok, random isn’t the right word. I’m in the middle of listening to the audiobook of The Revolt of the Public, on the massive upheaval we’re seeing around the world as traditional power structures find themselves unable to control the flow of information and therefore unable to make much of a case for the status quo or incrementalist reforms against issues raised by grassroots movements that have been amplified by social media platforms (it’s as good as they say, by the way). So my brain was perhaps primed to retrieve information along those lines.
As folks like Ben Thompson have been arguing for a long time, the Internet transformed the media landscape by dropping the cost of distributing information to essentially zero. Newspapers could have pressed hard on paywalls from the beginning of the move online, and perhaps norms would have evolved such that a greater portion of typical Internet users would be more willing to pay for access to content.
But eventually, with the low cost of spinning up web pages and sharing text and links, those with lower willingness to pay would collaboratively poke holes through those walls. Opinionated readers, wanting to share responses to particular bits of text to friends, family, or anyone else who would listen, would take chunks of content here and there and re-purpose it to their own ends. Once sharing begins, people are going to select for the sources who put out content that aligns with their interests or worldview. Even in an alternative history where Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube somehow don’t achieve network effect-driven monopolies by aggregating demand (user attention) and instead we’re all split among platforms like Friendster and Orkut, we’d be seeing a lot of the same transformative effects from social media enabled on the Internet as we do with the platforms we’ve actually got.
Is bad content shared widely on these platforms? Unfortunately, yes. Could the companies who build and maintain these platforms do more to limit the reach of radicalizing or degrading hate speech? Absolutely. Would it be a good thing for the world if Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey said, “You know, what? You’re right. This was a mistake. Shut the whole thing down. Someone else should start over.” I don’t know.
No company, product, or service is entitled to exist. But if we’re seriously looking at busting out the Corporate Banhammer for platforms that impact billions of people around the world, we should look at the pros and cons of the existence with unclouded eyes.
Given the role of judge, jury, and executioner in the case of We The People vs The Platforms, I’d want the equally fantastic ability to have complete information on the following:
The ad targeting capabilities of Facebook in particular lend themselves to pinging niches with specific messaging. To what extent did this impact votes cast in the election? To what extent did this capability allow first-time politicians the opportunity to present policies aligned with the interests of target constituents such that voters ended up with a more representative outcome than they would under a media regime dominated by traditional media gatekeepers?
The incentives and interfaces of platforms tend to amplify extreme ideas. The increased prevalence of extreme ideas from “the other side” of any given issue tends to increase revulsion for that other side’s perspectives by making them seem like the norm among that group, sowing further division. Outside the realm of two-party politics (a big thing to dismiss as more of our reality gets sucked into the political realm), to what extent have these platforms brought people together around socially-healthy concepts and mutual support? How do we measure the upside of young people organizing for the future, the oppressed joining forces against entrenched structural racism and misogyny? Of silly recreational clubs for organizing bowling outings, bridge game nights, and flying drones with some other dorks of the same stripe at the park? This touches one of the oldest criticisms of Old Media: it never has an incentive to highlight the good happening in the world, and I can’t imagine it’s any better on this front when discussing the existential threat of social media.
Anti-vax media is tragic when it impacts individual children unable to argue on their own behalf for proper preventative healthcare. At scale, it certainly feels like it’s causing something of a self-inflicted epidemic. But I’d really like to see how these platforms net out on informing vs misinforming the masses at large. My gut tells me that people are underweighting the value of exposure to concepts, ideas, and perspectives that would never be conveyed by the limited printed media consumption and 6 hours a day of TV that most people filled their time with minus the Internet. I’m entirely willing to admit that this might be the naive blindspot of a curious person who’d learn no matter what media paradigm I grew up with.
One of the most prevalent cognitive biases we see today is to believe that those on your side of an argument are thoughtful, rational, and incorporating all the right perspectives while assuming that the other side is actively dismissive of relevant information. I don’t want to fall prey to that bias. But the impression I get from those who want to pull a Ripley on the biggest social platforms is that they have become so set on particular outcomes that they’re willing to burn it all down, no matter the benefits we accrue along with the massive social costs they rightly identify.