Social media: truthful not neutral

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, July 24, 2018, 2:00 PM | comments: 0

Two years ago, I wrote about my fascination with the notion that the press, the actual journalistic institution of reporting news, had to necessarily abandon the fascination with being "neutral" and instead be truthful as the context requires. The short version of this is that if you're covering a story about genocide, you don't need to present the other side of the story, from the perspective of the people doing the killing. Killing is bad, and that's truth. You don't have to, and should not, be concerned with being neutral when there is a clear truth to the situation. This is of course a hot topic because it isn't really necessary to offer the perspective of a politician who is lying. The truth is the truth.

Social media is not a journalistic endeavor, despite the fact that countless people suggest otherwise. Social media is intended to socialize thoughts and ideas, and to that end, we've seen it tend to reinforce beliefs more than anything. There isn't a lot of challenging going on. However, it doesn't mean that truth doesn't exist. Reality still has an objective basis in fact. So imagine my surprise at some of the recent headlines. Mark Zuckerberg, who runs Facebook, apparently believes that Holocaust deniers are just making a mistake, and will continue to offer Facebook as a platform for this false position. Similarly, Twitter's Jack Dorsey seems to be indifferent about providing a platform for racists, though I'm certain no one well acclimated to society thinks racism is OK. Truth doesn't seem ambiguous there.

I'm strongly disappointed in the people who run the social media companies. They were founded with the lofty goal of connecting people, but at this point they're willing to overlook the worst of humanity for the sake of engaged users. They have in fact made it easier for people to be divisive. It's not a binary condition, don't get me wrong, because certainly social media has connected people in ways that weren't otherwise possible. But here's the thing... these are companies, not government, and as such they have no such obligation to be neutral in the context of free expression. They can draw a line in the sand and require civility, they just choose not to.

I've been running online communities now for 20 years, which in Internet years, might as well be a century. There's never been any illusion of "free speech" on those sites, but for decades now we've managed to have great conversations. They weren't all respectful, but generally we've been able to have conversations with opposing viewpoints. We've never bounced anyone for having the "wrong" opinion, but we absolutely did for people who threatened violence against others, engaged in name calling or certainly any kind of hate speech. I've never felt like that line wasn't obvious. Why can't Twitter and Facebook figure this out? You aren't enabling a conversation... people who cross those lines are not interested in having one.

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