Right now, a massive conversation has been launched about the value and danger of social media. Most of that conversation has centered around two specific problems: the first is privacy; the second is manipulation.
The first problem is the most obvious, and the most broadly concerning to the most people. People are worried that companies like Facebook and Google have been using all their data for purposes of profit-making or marketing, that they’ve been packaging that data to third parties or allowing third parties to grab that data without user permission, that the searches they’ve been entering with the assumption of anonymity aren’t anonymous in the slightest.
The answer to this is: of course this was happening. And not only was it happening, it was celebrated by many of the same people on the political Left currently decrying it. The Obama campaign was praised mightily in 2008 and 2012 for their masterful use of so-called “Big Data.” The worm has only turned now that Donald Trump is president and many on the Left are looking for someone to blame — and so they blame Facebook’s supposed focus on profit over privacy.
Then there’s the second problem: the problem of manipulation. People on the Left purport to be worried about the idea that right-wing sources and Russians used social media data to provide narratives to susceptible crowds. They blame this sort of manipulation for Hillary Clinton’s devastating election loss. The reality, again, is that the Obama team engaged in precisely this sort of manipulation for years, and nobody on the Left cared.
But there is real informational manipulation currently taking place on social media. And it threatens the entire structure of the new media.
The old media used to be able to control the nature of journalism as well as the information that the public saw. There were gatekeepers. The expense of running a television network was extraordinarily high; the same held true for newspapers. The legacy media had a de facto monopoly on the distribution of information: ABC, NBC, CBS controlled television; The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and a few others controlled print. Fox News was the first company to challenge that monopoly. Then the internet came along and blew up the system completely.
But something happened. For years, Americans got their news from websites they bookmarked and visited — or they used link-directed sites like Drudge Report to determine which news was worth following. The Drudge Report still acts as perhaps the last remaining bastion of such news-visiting, cultivated by a conservative — it’s massively powerful, and drives millions of eyeballs. But most Americans no longer bother bookmarking sites; they now get their news via Facebook and Youtube and Google and Twitter other social media sites. Fully 78% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 49 get their news from social media; so do 55% of 50+ Americans.
That transition in news consumption occurred because social media promised implicitly to act as open platforms: you no longer had to bookmark Daily Wire, you could just follow Daily Wire and its updates would appear in your feed. This was quicker and easier, and you could also engage with your friends on the stories that appeared in your feed. And so publishers began appealing to the aggregated eyeballs on those outlets. Consumers and news outlets saw social media as a platform, in other words, not as a publisher. And that’s how social media billed itself.
Then social media decided to act as a publisher, and to re-establish the old media gatekeeping function. No longer would Facebook act like AT&T, simply providing a mechanism for informational distribution. Now, Facebook announced that it would cultivate news from only approved sources, and downgrade other news — so if you followed Daily Wire, Daily Wire stories might still not appear in your feed. Mark Zuckerberg was no longer Steve Jobs or Bill Gates — now he was Arthur Sulzberger. Youtube and Google and Twitter did the same. Suddenly, rising, successful alternatives to mainstream media were downgraded by the same companies that had pledged openly and implicitly to merely connect users and publishers. As multiple studies have shown, traffic has plummeted for a wide variety for conservative sites across the spectrum; the same hasn’t held true for outlets on the Left, and particularly for those considered “mainstream.”
This is dangerous, obviously. And it raises a serious legal question: should these social media outlets, which have now made clear that they see their mission not as platforms but as publishers, be given legal exemption as platforms? Or should they be held accountable as publishers?
This is a question that bears severe fiscal ramifications. Publishers are liable for defamatory statements they print, for example, as well as copyright infringement and plagiarism. Social media are replete with all of these types of content. Historically, social media have claimed immunity to suit on these grounds since they are mere platforms, just as AT&T is a platform for talking but can’t be sued for defamatory statements made over its phone lines. But what if social media are cultivating content? What if they’re making decisions about what consumers see, and which opinions must be quashed, in a non-neutral fashion? If, for example, Facebook chooses to elevate a particular story in people’s newsfeed that contains defamatory information, could Facebook feel the sting in the court?
That, however, is a side point. The bigger point is this: the gatekeepers are back, and they have an agenda. If platforms are going to start treating themselves as publishers, perhaps we should all start treating them as such accordingly.