The War for Social Media: The Center is Trying to Diminish Diversity and Control Speech

by Benjamin Studebaker

There’s a story we tell about social media. Once upon a time politics wasn’t so divided and polarized. But then, social media came along–it let people retreat into bubbles, where they only talked to people who thought as they did. This caused them to get all extreme and nasty. And then the alt-right and the Russians figured out that they could inject fake stories into these bubbles and turn social media users into Trump supporters! Our beautiful liberal society was torn apart, and it’s all because people stopped trusting traditional news sources, like the big newspapers and TV networks. Companies like Facebook have a responsibility to do something about this–to call out the fake stories, or stop them from showing up in people’s feeds. Sounds familiar, right? I want to tell a different story about social media.

In the beginning, Facebook saw itself as something like a telephone company. Your phone company makes it possible for you to call someone far away, but it doesn’t have to take responsibility for what you say to that person. It’s a medium for communication, but it’s not a media company. Verizon and AT&T are not like Disney or Newscorp.

The thing about social media is that it has very low barriers to entry. Anyone can post on social media. There are no editors, no one to tell you that what you’re saying is too radical for the network or the newspaper you work for. If you want to start a Facebook page and start posting about how only “God Emperor” Donald Trump can put a stop to white genocide, you can do that. But you could instead post memes about how dank Bernie Sanders is. You could even post about what a great role model Hillary Clinton is for girls.

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At its best, social media has the potential to democratize the public discourse a bit. It gets rid of the gatekeepers–the people who tell you that your content isn’t good enough or doesn’t fit with your publishing outlet’s editorial agenda. You can be your own editor. The only thing that governs your success is the approval of the people. If the people like your content, your following grows. If they don’t, nobody sees what you post.

People started turning on social media because they started to miss the gatekeepers. They liked a national conversation that was mostly dominated by the small handful of people who own the TV networks and newspapers. Why did they like it? Because it pushed a political agenda that they agreed with, and because it helped keep political disagreement small and manageable.

It’s easy to say that the people who don’t agree with you believe what they believe because they get all their opinions from a social media bubble. But if you get all your opinions from the media conglomerates that own the newspapers and TV networks, are you any better off? The center has a bubble of its very own, it just exists offline.

Centrists don’t like the competition from independent media. So they’ve started to push social media outlets to act like media companies instead of telephone companies. How dare Facebook treat a post from a lowly lefty blog like mine as if it were just as good as one from The Washington Post? How dare it treat posts from those untrustworthy Russians as equivalent to posts from CNN? Someone ought to arbitrate the true from the false. And who better to do it than the centrists and the traditional media gatekeepers? Gatekeepers who, by the way, are responsible for all the stories about how bad social and independent media are.

I’m as big a believer in pointing out falsehoods as the next person, but I don’t trust rich companies to do it. I certainly don’t trust one rich individual to do it. And this is where the mainstream media has pushed Facebook–now Mark Zuckerberg will intervene in the Facebook algorithm like a philosopher king (albeit one who dropped out of college and never studied any substantive amount of philosophy). He and he alone will decide how much political content there will be, where it comes from, and whether it will be certified as “trustworthy”. In the same vein, Twitter will now strip you of verified account status if it doesn’t like what you have to say, and it might even ban you.

We cheer these developments when they silence right nationalist voices, but once we give these companies and individuals this power why should we expect them to use it only when the center faces challenges from the right? Once social media companies stop being phone companies, they become traditional media companies. Facebook becomes another Newscorp, and Zuckerberg a new Murdoch. The man has been encouraged by the mainstream press, over and over, to use his power like any other billionaire media mogul would–to turn the volume down on the people he and they blame for dividing the country and empowering Sanders and Trump. For years, Facebook was only as good as its founder’s restraint. But in the crucible of the Russia scandal, Zuckerberg now finds that he will be rewarded by the press not for holding back but for diving in.

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He’s in it now. He has the reigns. And now that he has them, he won’t give them up. In our terror at the thought of the Russians writing crummy news stories for Americans to read, we have empowered a single individual to police what, for many young people, amounts to nearly our entire public sphere. He can do this however he likes, in accordance with whatever whims he might have. Facebook is a private company and our speech on it is not protected. We are left to trust in him, the big kahuna, our hoodie-headed lord of light.

Only the most thoroughgoing partisan of the center could sign up to such a scheme. It is as if the liberal order attempted to protect itself from a small dog by unleashing a Tyrannosaur. The only way to slay the monster once released is for the state to nationalise social media and subject the algorithms that govern it to democratic control and free speech protections. It will take years before the political will exists to do such a thing, if it is ever done at all. In that intervening period we will live under the discursive dominion of an up-jumped programmer. Other social media outlets cannot displace Facebook–it simply buys them or copies them mercilessly until they die. It’s a monopoly, and it will remain a monopoly until we break it up or seize it.

But there’s another cat out of the bag–the cat of independent media. There are now many people writing and speaking to you who don’t rely on advertising and who are interested in confronting the great unfairnesses of our day. Some of us have built up sizable audiences. Even if Facebook shares our page posts less widely, you can share posts from the people you appreciate on your own pages. You can tell your friends about the people you think do good work. There are lots of you. More than you might think.

Yes, sometimes independent writers will be crackpots. Sometimes they’ll be racists. Sometimes they’ll work for the Russians. But at least there is a diverse array of us, serving many masters. Facebook has only one master, and 90% of the rest of the media landscape is divided among six. Better to have your choice of a few different bubbles, with the option to visit other people’s from time to time, than to return to a world in which we all marinate in the same miasma.

How about some respect for ideological diversity?