We Do Not Know What We’re Building

Some thoughts on the recent news.

Facebook and Twitter are learning what we’ve known for awhile: their products are beyond their control.

White supremacists are using Twitter to harass people and Russia are using both to interfere with democracy. What can (and should) both companies do in light of this stark reality? They don’t know. The people have some ideas, but those ideas are often too expensive or self-immolating to implement (such as: Facebook and Twitter should shut down for the public good).

It is fallacious for either company to claim they have never gotten into censorship. They both have on individual occasions, but they don’t know what it would look like as a blanket policy. Neither company wants to have to parse what is acceptable and unacceptable unpopular speech.  And no one is happy with their sporadic decisions, which have sometimes followed no logical reasoning.

Perhaps we people were never supposed to be able to communicate with such speed and transparency. The fact that any one individual can willingly and maliciously spread false information that reaches millions of people without any true repercussions is the biggest threat from these sites.

That the public is gullible enough to take specious claims and accept them as facts is a seemingly unfixable disease. Education is not the issue; it’s our desire to have our biases confirmed. Previously, we’d have to search out the viable publication that slanted stories to our base. Now, we can just find the craziest thing online and believe it full cloth.

Facebook and Twitter are definitely worried about regulation and, to a lesser extent, optics, so you will see some movement on their part to address the above issues. But not sure they will be able to fix what is their operating principle: the wide dissemination of information without gatekeepers.

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