December 15, 2017.
There is an argument happening in public about what responsibility companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google should accept for the content they host.
One side says that these platforms need to accept the reality that they are, in fact, media companies, and they should hire real journalists with proper training to make informed decisions to guide what content is seen by the public. Otherwise, we’ll be mired in a swamp of fake news, harassment, and sensationalism — and the fabric of society could come unraveled.
The other side says that these platforms are just tech companies, and they should bear no more responsibility for the content distributed through their system than a paper company would. If they did intervene, it would amount to thought policing, which, by the way, is the exact same thing opponents of Net Neutrality are warning against.
You can probably guess what I think: neither side has it right. And the thing that hangs them both up is the unhelpful distinction between “tech company” and “media company.”
When someone suggests that social platforms start acting like media companies, I honestly wonder what they have in mind. Do they literally think it would be a good idea to hire people who have a background in editing a newspaper or blog, and put them in charge of editing a feed of user-generated content? The skills you learn when you spend your career working in a newsroom (coming up with story ideas, research and reporting on them, cultivating sources, writing, and editing) do very little to equip you to solve the kind of problems that Facebook, Twitter, and Google are facing. Could a smart person from a media background maybe figure it out? Yes! But that’s because humans are extremely adaptable to new scenarios. Not because there is some obvious lesson “tech companies” should learn that “media companies” have already figured out.
Likewise, does anyone really think that content recommendation algorithms developed by social platforms are entirely neutral, and devoid of human judgment? Of course not! Every time you search, or look at a feed, the platform decides what content to show you. The platforms that can get you to keep coming back are the ones that turn into large businesses. In some ways, they’re no different from newspapers, television channels, or any other aggregator of attention. The difference is, Facebook and other behemoths seem to be many orders of magnitude more powerful than the media monopolies of yesteryear. It’s hard to know how much crap society would have to put up with before it would create a sufficient amount of pressure for people to actually leave Facebook, but it’s probably a lot. (Remember, the things that everyone complains about are side-effects of these platforms being too good at attracting attention!). So there should probably be some basic consumer protections put in place, just like we have for other industries that have incentive to create negative externalities.
To me, the bottom line is this:
These are new kinds of companies. Their success has created new kinds of problems. Let’s not pretend the answers are obvious or easy.
What do you think?