Catching up on my backlog of Time Magazine (yes, the print edition), here’s Roger McNamee, writing at Time.com:
Trump has long argued–without evidence–that Internet platforms are biased against conservative voices. In reality, conservative voices have thrived on these platforms. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube have consistently allowed conservatives to violate their terms of service. Twitter recently fact-checked two of Trump’s tweets that contained falsehoods, the first time it had done so, which appeared to trigger the Executive Order. Twitter subsequently issued a warning on a Trump tweet for endangering public safety. These actions were long overdue efforts to treat the President’s posts the same as any other user’s. At the same time, Facebook refused to take action with identical posts on its platform.
This should serve as a warning to companies who try to cozy up governments and politicians. Everything is fine until it is not. Section 230 has allowed large social media and tech companies to wash their hands of the hateful, untruthful, and hurtful content they allow users to post. It’s time to start holding social media and tech companies to the same higher standard as newspapers and other traditional news outlets.
The benefits of Internet platforms are evident to everyone with access to a computer or smartphone. But like the chemicals industry in the 1950s, Internet giants are exceptionally profitable because they do not pay any cost for the harm they cause. Where industrial companies dumped toxic chemicals in fresh water, Internet platforms pollute society with toxic content. The Internet is central to our way of life, but we have to find a way to get the benefits with fewer harms.
I think that progressive politicians are finally waking up to the fact that smartphones and reliable high-speed Internet connections are not nice to haves. They are essential to modern life. As the 70 and over crowd retire from politics, or are voted out of office, a new wave of politicians who understand how technology works come into office. The question I have is will they work for the people or align with large corporations, such as Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast, to get easy money.
Thanks to the fight-or-flight instinct wired into each of us, some forms of content force us to pay attention as a matter of self-preservation. Targeted harassment, disinformation and conspiracy theories are particularly engaging, so the algorithms of Internet platforms amplify them. Harmful content crowds out facts and expertise.
I agree with McNamee on this point. Anyone who disagrees only need to take an honest look the information that is being posted on social media sites about COVID-19 and the mask vs. no mask debate. As a resident of Connecticut, I take issue with Alex Jones’ outright lies out the Newtown school shooting.
Algorithms need not fill our feeds with targeted and dehumanizing disinformation and conspiracy theories. They do now because amplifying emotionally dangerous content is a choice made to maximize profits. “Optimizing for engagement” undermines democracy and public health. It increases political polarization and fosters hostility to expertise and facts. It undermines journalism, not just by taking advertising dollars from the media but also by forcing news into an environment that discourages critical thinking–and by putting junk news, disinformation and harmful content on an equal footing with credible news sources.
I really dislike the algorithmic ordering of posts in Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn feeds. It was one of the reasons why I chose to delete my Facebook account and try to avoid using Twitter on the web in favor of Tweetbot. The only way to fix this problem is to begin holding social media and large tech companies accountable for the information that is posted to their services by way of a federal law.
While I am not a fan of Roger McNamee due to his poor influence over Palm, Inc. by way of his investment firm, Elevation Partners, I do agree with him that self-regulation of Facebook and social media companies just does not work and must change.