Remember when social media networks first became popular and when you first started using them. I re-connected with friends I hadn’t heard from in years, some in decades. I was able to keep up with what friends and relatives were doing, where they lived, how they spent their vacations, even what music they listened to or movies they watched.
It was part of an expanded social environment on the internet that gave all of us a voice, a publishing platform. I could offer up my opinion, my photos and my videos, as I’m doing on this blog, without having to find a publisher, pitch an editor or go through any gatekeepers. I thought of it as the democratization of information and publishing. The only drawback I saw was a petty one, the tediousness of one too many cute cat photos, cute dog photos or cute kid photos.
But then a dark side emerged. This democratized publishing platform became the platform for neo-Nazis, racists, scammers, bullies and various types of hate mongers and disinformation providers. It became a virtual recruiting office for terrorist organizations and a tool for foreign governments to try to manipulate election outcomes.
At Recode’s Code Conference, held this week in Scottsdale, Ariz., current and former executives from Twitter, Google, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram were asked about this. Their answers were all pretty much the same and it goes like this:
1, Each was anxious to remind the audience that the toxic stuff is only a small percentage of the information available on their platforms. Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, calls it the 1%, suggesting that the other 99% is good quality stuff of interest to their users.
2. The poisonous content is an unintended consequence of their noble effort to provide an open platform and give everyone a voice. As a former head of communications at Google, Jessica Powell was more blunt than some of the others: “They have been there from the start. Historically the platforms have been way too lax about what is allowed.”
3. But now, they say, we recognize the problem and, while we’re not there yet, we’re working on it. YouTube says they have 10,000 people dealing with controversial content and took 8 million items down in the last quarter. Twitter says 110 groups were banned from the platform, 90% of which were white supremacist organizations. And so on and so on.
Wojcicki deserves credit for being the only one in her position to get up on stage and answer questions about this for an hour or so. But her comments only seem to prove the inability of these companies to deal with the problem.
Wojcicki started her session noting that a recent decision by YouTube was deeply hurtful to the LGBT community. She apologized. This comment referred to the recent public disclosure by a Vox reporter Carlos Maza that he has been harassed for the past two years on YouTube by a racist homophobic pig named Steven Crowder. His videos refer to Maza as a “lipsy queer” and “gay Mexican.” Some of his comments are delivered while wearing a t-shirt that says “socialism is for fags,” an item he sells.
This stuff was made public while YouTube was blowing the trumpet about its new hate speech policy. So they took Crowder videos down right, despite the fact that he has almost 4 million subscribers? Nope. They decided these videos did not violate their hate speech policy. And when that announcement produced the predictable uproar they decided that while they weren’t taking the videos down they were going to block Crowder from monetization. So now everybody’s pissed and things are even worse for Maza as some of the cretins who follow Crowder are now harassing and threatening him.
Amongst Wojcicki’s litany of excuses was “if we took down that content there was so much other content that we had to take down.” And that’s a bad thing? Seems to me to be a start for cleaning up this digital cesspool.
The tech industry is in the midst of what has always been an issue in American capitalism. Whenever an industry, in its quest for greater and greater profits, starts to damage consumers, the society that they operate in or the environment, it raises a call for government regulation. The response of the giants in that industry, whether its banking or real estate, energy or autos, is always to try to convince that they can self-regulate.
That is what the giant tech companies are doing now. But they can’t do it. And the best explanation I heard of why came from NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway. “When it’s raining money, your vision gets blurred.”
Like everyone else I know, I believe in free speech. And I want an open internet. But how much weaponization can we tolerate. Do we protect free speech that threatens, humiliates or victimizes? No. Nor can these companies effectively self-regulate. So there has to be some government regulation and most of the execs at the Code Conference are resigned to that.
But regulation by the U.S. government in its current state is sure to be a challenge. So many of the government leaders and officials both in the White House and in the Capitol are pretty out of touch when it comes to technology and some barely seem to understand what the internet is. How would you like, for example, to have internet policy set by the likes of Mitch McConnell.
We have an administration that is touting de-regulation, run by a party that likely benefits from far-right disinformation. But it’s a bipartisan problem that most elected officials seem far more focused on partisanship and their own self-preservation than they are on benefiting and supporting their constituents. That is unless you mean by constituents the corporations, billionaires and interest groups that fund their campaigns. How else could you explain why congressmen would vote against an open internet other then that they’ve been bought by Comcast or Verizon.
It is reasonable to point out that the social networks are a reflection of the society in which they operate. But they have attached a megaphone to it. Here is a small example of how small issues become big problems on social media. In the town where I live two middle school kids had sex in the bathroom of a local pharmacy. Not exactly what you would like to think is going on while your filling your prescriptions, but how do I know about that anyway? The issues could well have stayed within the crusty walls of the public restroom, had not one of the kids posted it online. So everyone in town now knows about it. While that doesn’t change how acceptable or unacceptable the initial behavior is, the consequences have been amplified for the kids involved, their parents and families, their schools and teachers and likely for the staff of the drugstore which is part of a giant chain.
Government regulation won’t address the issue of having a portion of our citizenry that is hateful, bigoted and violent. But maybe by taking the megaphone away from them they will crawl back under the woodwork from whence they came.