ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: Social media’s big con game


In 2015, @Jack tweeted: “I think Twitter is the closest thing we have to a global consciousness. And I believe the world needs that right now.” Last week, the bearded @Jack, otherwise known as Jack Dorsey, quit his job as the CEO of Twitter, apparently having decided that running that thing was no longer much fun.

Forgive us if we don’t have much sympathy.

Being new and novel, the social media channels that now dominate much of our waking hours managed to worm their way into our collective consciousness even as their potentially pernicious effects went unnoticed. Subsequent generations will hold us to account for our folly.

Right from the start, the tech titans at Twitter and Facebook argued that they were not so much a publisher in the sense that the owner of this newspaper is a publisher but more of a public utility. This has proved to be a con.

By hiding behind a federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the social networks claimed broad immunity from liability for content created by their users; a protection not afforded this newspaper.

At the same time, those networks relied on, for their revenue and popularity, the distribution of content from traditional publishers, even as they sold targeted advertising that ate into journalistic business models, hastening the current, well-documented crisis in local journalism.

Much of the illusion of the public utility fell apart once Twitter and Facebook discovered that their users often created duplicitous and hateful content. Their own users and staffers demanded censorship of this detritus, but they of course did so according to their own political and ideological preferences.

And thus Twitter co-founder @Jack and his friends at Facebook found themselves trying to decide what did or did not count as hate speech; the reasonable limits of privacy; whether high political office (such as president) implied different criteria; how much people could be trusted to make their own decisions; what was and wasn’t actual news; how much balance is desirable; and more.

Tough going, @Jack?

For generations, newspapers have made similar judgment calls, but they’ve used a staff of professional journalists to do so, not an algorithm. And when mistakes have been made those publications have been held accountable by the courts and by their readers. They haven’t hidden under some blather of “global consciousness.”

The social networks were always publishers, always making editorial choices. They merely used technology and the seemingly benign aspect of so-called user-generated content to hide their curatorial role.

This newspaper is subject to competition. You can subscribe or not. You can choose to get your news and opinion here or elsewhere. Free competition is a proven way of limiting power. Public bodies must be wary of regulation of the likes of Twitter and Facebook merely becoming a way for these two entities to duck responsibility and keep a stranglehold on power.

We see the promise of Frank McCourt’s Project Liberty, an effort to create a social network that gives users more control over their personal data. And Donald Trump should be free to create his new TRUTH Social network, just as you should be free to ignore it.

And, no, it’s not the truth; just his truth. As long we all understand that, and make our societal decisions accordingly, no problem.