The easiest way to manage Fb: Don’t
When new media behave more like old ones, they avoid possible government action.
I hate Facebook and I can’t live without it. Facebook is a time-consuming, data-intensive parasite that is vital to the survival of Covidlife.
I first dipped my toe in Sugar Lands a decade ago to keep up with the family, and then shot in depth for sports journalists and other professional purposes. But Covid-19 inflated my cover – isolation from a pandemic has shown that my Facebook relationship is real, insane, and deeply personal.
It keeps me from feeling alone.
I reconnected with friends and colleagues from old times. I cultivated and deepened friendships with sports club attendants. I found current golf and skiing dates as well as post-pandemic dance and drink dates. It is an essential public benefit for many of us today.
Facebook wants to be everything for all people, which effectively makes it two faces. You can use it to play mah jong, sell your bunk bed, hire an exterminator, and check the weather forecast. You can also use it to hurt people and cause havoc. After years of Facebook fermented chaos in distant places like Myanmar, the pandemonium came home to the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.
What should I do? And who should do it?
Now we have even more reasons to love / hate Facebook. Depending on your policies, it is a vehicle for conspiracies that provoke death and destruction. Or it censors free speech by shutting down those conspirators’ accounts. What can someone do about it?
Facebook doesn’t compare well with older communication channels. It’s the town square, the book club, the high school cafeteria, the cocktail lesson, the local dinner, the practice class, and a pass of other infrequent metaphors. And don’t lose sight of this one: a curious mall that demands payment for dates.
But for a journalist like me, Facebook is the closest thing to community newspapers in their prime. There’s news, entertainment, opinion, chatter, letters to the editor, lots of advertising, and not enough editing. I think the direction is in the newspaper to make Facebook better. The question is, who is going to make them do it?
I am deeply dissatisfied with the US government’s concept of regulating social media as it broadcasts radio and television. Airwaves are a limited resource, the internet is not.
New media have to behave more like old ones
The best way for the social mob to fight off regulation is to act more like a longstanding unregulated medium: the newspaper. Especially newspapers from the late 20th century.
For most of American history, newspapers have been opinion-forming political propaganda organs. It was for this very reason that they were protected by the first amendment to differentiate the young republic from England, which in the past had licensed, taxed and censored newspapers and brochures.
The newspapers in the 18th and 19th centuries were restless and full of ideological vehemence, sometimes downright lies. Sound familiar? These rags were plentiful and cheap as websites are today.
The news industry matured and consolidated in the 20th century. Journalism evolved into a master’s degree profession that separates fact-based reporting from opinion sides. Mind you, this “objective” worldview wore sexist white lenses until recently, but at least a concept for journalistic standards has emerged.
Newspapers now monitor themselves online in two ways: traditional pre-processing and post-digital enforcement. Take my soap box here at the Times Union, which sees both forms. The TU actually “edited” me before giving me the advancing blog – they won’t let anyone open their mouths on their platform. Still, no editor checks my text before I post it.
However, if my post violates TU standards – and there is a two-page list of them – an editor can remove it. If I hurt frequently or outrageously, I will be shut down permanently.
The first change doesn’t let the media give you a megaphone anymore than the second that Remington gives you a rifle.
This Times Union practice creates controversy among bloggers from time to time. Tough. The first change doesn’t make the TU give me one more megaphone than the second change makes Remington give me a gun. The first change applies only to your government. There is no commercial freedom of speech.
Facebook needs a red pen
Facebook has the right to edit us, but how? Membership is certainly not curated – the only requirements are name, date of birth, and email address, and people fake this stuff all the time. But counterfeiting leads to more low-level fraud than riot here.
What Facebook can and should do is carefully review member applications to set up pages and groups instead of just shrugging and saying OK. Group conversations are both the most efficient way to fuel conspiracies and the most efficient place to end them.
Should Facebook edit our content? Absolutely. Before it gets published? No, that is absolutely impractical. However, checking for compliance with Facebook community standards after posting can be quicker and more consistent. Along with improving the algorithm, Facebook needs to invest its gushing money in more human, brained eyeballs.
The company pre-checks the content it relies on to survive – advertising. This also causes a headache when overzealous bots automatically reject harmless paid posts, and finding someone to turn to on Facebookland turns into a lazy limbo dance. So there is some work to be done here: Set up a faster and more accessible appeal mechanism for paid or free content. More investment.
But I don’t want any of this law, any more than I want my government to tell the Times Union what and how to edit, whether the content is employee or community generated. Let’s keep the regulatory dimension on the fringes of the publishing business – through defamation and defamation laws that operate in the civil rather than the criminal field. If a fake or fake social network causes death or damage to a person or company, let the trial lawyers talk about it.
Why not a non-profit organization?
This is the capitalist solution that relies on free market forces to make social media responsive. There is also a socialist solution: non-profit, volunteer-run social networks. Works for Wikipedia. They are out there, but none of them started like Facebook. Still, I don’t see any aspect of Facebook that depends on profits, except, ironically, the news it is now paying for after years of being stolen. News media content is nice to have, but not why most people spend time on Facebook.
There is hope here of a migration to new venues as the popularity of social networks is particularly susceptible to trend death. Do you remember MySpace?
The digital first change
As you may have noticed over the past four years, we are in a difficult environment for public order. Be careful what you wish for if you think the answer to the FCC on social media is the answer. It is just as likely that we will have a congress mandating the “free speech” of Stop the Steal and its kind, as we see a relatively lenient requirement for political candidates to have fair airtime.
Take a look at what happened in 2017: the end of net neutrality imposed by the FCC, which previously prohibited Internet service providers from blocking content for anyone or charging additional fees. Therein lies the true home of digital freedom of speech: access to ISPs, which are arguably a finite resource such as broadcast frequencies and telephone infrastructure. Let’s revive the government guarantee that no ISP can prevent any person or organization from using a website to communicate wisdom or nonsense, news or opinions that he / she / it wants to say.
To quote the old saw, the power of the press belongs to those who own the presses. But the newspapers and magazines produced by these presses have to get into our hands somehow – through newsstands, freight forwarders, and, oh oh, a semi-governmental entity, the US Postal Service. Look how close this is to the disaster with the ballots sent in last year.
The internet equivalent of a press is your own website, not your social media account. (Your Facebook timeline belongs to Mark Zuckerberg, and don’t forget.) But if the Big Cs – Charter, Comcast, or Cox – don’t deliver my website content to you, my internet press has no power. This is not a theoretical question; A tiny ISP in Idaho threatened to block customer access to Facebook and Twitter when they shut down Trump’s accounts.
Which digital First Amendment rights should Donald J. Trump have if he is spurned by popular social networks? Not the ability to force Amazon servers to host a riot incubator like Parler – let them have their own damn server! But the FCC should probably get Spectrum to deliver Parler to its minions. (While the FBI is closely monitoring it.)
Otherwise, we’ll open the creaky door to the catacomb of Be careful what you want. This has been our dilemma since 1791: the more difficult aspects of freedom of expression apply to the left and right.
King George III Would giggle at all of this. James Madison? Maybe not so much.
Stephanie Mumford Brown is Chief Wiseacre at Wiseacre Press, where she tries to put together the missing assembly instructions for the second half of life. Do you want to make sure you don’t miss any of her pearls of wisdom? Subscribe by emailing LIST to firstname.lastname@example.org.