In this historic moment of American carnage, you’re probably wrestling with how to spend your emotional energy. But it’s tough. You understand that your weird cousin will continue to believe and spread wild and debunked conspiracy theories. You know that loser “friend” on Facebook will continue to bathe in the same poisonous stew of paranoia and disinformation they’ve been washing in for the past four years. So what to do as we consider a country where a band of terrorist freaks can invade our Capitol at the invitation of a president endorsed by north of 74 million fellow countrymen? Yes, Trump and his lapdog sycophants are to blame. Yet they’re not budging. Turn your attention to the complicit social media companies.
Just imagine if Twitter didn’t corrupt the information ecosystem by feeding digital lies to its 330 million users. Think if Facebook didn’t promote falsehoods to its 2.7 billion customers worldwide. Conceive a world where YouTube refused to broadcast b.s. to its two billion video users.
Don’t be fooled into concluding the nature of social media eliminates the ability of the platforms to reform. The brilliant engineers who operate the status quo can retune these cacophonous instruments in a heartbeat. In fact, we saw insufficient but conclusive proof of that in recent months as the social media CEOs began to modestly clamp down on the venom in the days leading up to the general election. We saw an even stronger response by the complicit Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey in the wake of Wednesday’s terrorist attacks by the rioting mob. But we have a million miles to go.
As someone who cherishes the First Amendment as a citizen, relies on free speech as a journalist, and as someone who benefits from social media as a business owner, let me push back as aggressively as possible on the idea that social media platforms are just agnostic, technology platforms. No, they are media companies and must be subject to the same ethical and legal responsibilities as us.
Think about the Letters to the Editor page in newspapers. Sure, editorial pages are the home to robust debate. Publishing highly controversial, sensitive opinion is pivotal. But if someone submits a defamatory letter, do we publish it? No. We exercise discretion. We exercise that discretion because our conscience and our law dictate libel as wrong. The collective conscience of arrogant Silicon Valley needs to change yet we also need legal reform so these giant corporations are genuinely accountable to U.S. law.
I’m highly cognizant of the irony of delivering this message to you not just in print, and not just on our website, but also through our very own social media accounts. Social media, in addition to being a venomous curse, is also an extraordinary blessing to the world. Incredible sums of money have been raised for good causes resulting from the unique nature of social media sharing. Same goes for the ability of journalists to reach new readers and countless other public goods. We just need infinitely less avoidable public bad to be foisted into our country’s soul.
So, with all this in mind, I’m calling on our local elected leaders, most notably U.S. Representatives Mondaire Jones and Sean Patrick Maloney, to address and prioritize this pressing issue now, in the new Congress. And, more to the point, I’m calling on YOU to make noise about it.
Lest you think social media reform is a partisan issue, let’s not forget that plenty of far left misinformation is propagated every day across the globe. This isn’t to draw a false equivalency. Our primary problem, right now, is far right insanity. But we should be able to muster some bi-partisan support around vanquishing potent, known lies.
The most important nuance here is to avoid a new culture that chills free expression and the permission of unpopular ideas. The right is right to worry about an intolerant woke culture. We want social media companies operating like our best American newspapers, promoters of free speech by fostering an information culture that showcases civility, debate and controversial opinion — but it can no longer be OK for these publishing behemoths to broadcast dangerous lies with impunity. They should be fully and completely protected by the First Amendment in the same way as newspapers and networks; not in a different way. They are publishing companies, the biggest publishing companies in world history, not technology companies. It’s high time they be treated as what they are.
The current social media culture is a potentially deadly, incredibly contagious virus, as dangerous to our politics as COVID-19 is to our health. Let’s locate the vaccine.
Adam Stone, Publisher of Examiner Media