Social media companies have gotten away with a double standard for far too long.
For years now, major social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter, have been able to have their cake and eat it, too: They’ve marketed themselves as trustworthy news sources, but unlike news organizations, they’ve operated with almost zero transparency and accountability.
At long last, that double standard might be finally coming to an end.
This dichotomy became national news two weeks ago (which feels like eons ago) when Twitter, for the first time ever, decided to append a fact-checking link to one of President Donald Trump’s tweets:
There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed. The Governor of California is sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2020
The move ignited a fierce debate over whether it was proper for Twitter to make editorial decisions about the tweets shared on its platform.
A more fierce version of the same debate erupted later that week when Facebook refused to take down a post by Trump calling for the National Guard to shoot looters in Minneapolis — despite the platform having an explicit ban on posts promoting violence.
I can’t stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis. A total lack of leadership. Either the…
Some argued these platforms should remain agnostic about the content posted to the platforms. But a growing chorus of people, including employees at the companies themselves, are seeing that these companies need to conduct editorial oversight on their networks.
The misconception is that this is anything new for these companies. Twitter and Facebook have been making editorial decisions for years, and as they should. When your platform traffics in news, then you have an ethical and business obligation to conduct some level of quality assurance.
Facebook and Twitter aren’t transparent about or held accountable for those editorial decisions, however, and that’s where it becomes a serious problem.
This debate actually extends back to the mid-2010s, when Facebook, Twitter and YouTube realized it was good to be in the news business, even going as far to forge ad-sharing partnerships with digital publishers. This was a conscious decision by the platforms because they realized news content kept users more engaged.
But with news content comes difficult decisions about what pieces of new content get served up to users. This was most evident in 2014, when 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking the Black Lives Matter movement. But all of the organizing activity around that tragedy was occurring on Twitter. The only thing you could find on Facebook were posts about the Ice Bucket Challenge. Shortly thereafter, Facebook introduced trending stories to highlight more news-related posts.
It’s just one example of how these platforms make editorial decisions that impact us on a massive scale. Twitter decides who does (and doesn’t) get verified. Facebook’s News Feed algorithm decides the news-related posts its users do (and don’t) see. YouTube banned Alex Jones and his InfoWars content from its platform. Reddit placed restrictions on the pro-Trump subreddit on its site. All of these are editorial decisions.
But rather than stick by their editorial decisions, these platforms try to hide behind the idea that they are not news entities at all — they insist they’re technology companies, and thus not held to the same standard as news entities.
Bullshit. If your business is serving up news content and selling ads alongside that content, you’re in the news business and you should be treated accordingly.
The most troubling aspect is just how powerful these companies are. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are the largest, most influential media companies ever. No other institution in the history of civilization aside from — oh, I don’t know, the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages — can shape public discourse as widely and quickly. Their power over public opinion is unprecedented and they should be subject to a corresponding amount of scrutiny.
It’s time we stop letting them hide behind their algorithms and arcane terms of service. They should be held as accountable as any other news organization or media personality.
Even Facebook employees are getting fed up with the company’s reluctance to engage in actual fact-checking:
I work at Facebook and I am not proud of how we’re showing up. The majority of coworkers I’ve spoken to feel the same way. We are making our voice heard.
— Jason Toff (@jasontoff) June 1, 2020
Indeed, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced late last week that he will re-examine the company’s editorial policies in light of the internal backlash, though the statement was rather vague and short on concrete promises.
Trump is trying to hold social media companies more accountable by curtailing their legal protections and making them liable for the content they serve up, but he’s framing it as an issue of supposed anti-conservative bias.
This is bigger than politics. It should bother everyone, regardless of their politics, that we allow these powerful companies to operate with impunity.
If we’ve learned one thing the past few years, it’s that we are in dire need of reliable information. It’s time we demand it from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — the most powerful news outlets in the world.