Civil Eyes

I’m not great with words so I’ve been looking for someone else to quote that best expressed my views on the recent moves by social media companies to curate the discussions taking place on their platforms. I did not feel comfortable with the knee jerk reaction to simply get rid of the “bad stuff” as such blanket bans could too easily be misapplied and cause collateral damage. But,  like others, I was impatient with @jack’s intellectual distancing.

The light bulb finally went off when I read Jeff Jarvis’ piece in The Atlantic, Platforms Are Not Publishers. Jarvis points out that we view the internet through the lens we have for print – a medium where words are published for consumption. Print is broadcast. The internet is, by definition, bi-directional. The internet is not about content, it is about conversations. Conversations are iterative, messy, hard to curate, let alone control. An editorial board is not the solution.

The banning of Infowars from most major platforms is a sign of that process beginning to work. Civilization is winning, at last. Alex Jones went too far and the public, empowered by the same tools of social media he exploited, told the platforms that his behavior is unacceptable in a civilized society. The platforms—like media and like regulators—might prefer to start with a set of rules that can be enforced by government, by social-media managers, or by algorithms. But that’s not how we negotiate our standards. The breach makes the rule. We know pornography, propaganda, trolling, and spamming when we see it, and then write the rules to prevent it. That progress always seems to take too long, but it is prudent that we ban what we see rather than everything we might fear.

– Platforms Are Not Publishers

The norms of acceptable conduct are still being refined. With each new transgression or outrage such as the Infowars example, we collectively define the line between a provocative debate of a contrarian viewpoint and an attention-grabbing, deceitful and malicious commercial enterprise.

Political discussions used to be along a familiar Liberal – Conservative spectrum in which both sides used agreed upon tools (facts, scientific method) to argue their case. Think of the Federalist Papers or, more recently, the Buckley/Vidal debates during the early days of television.

Today, agreed upon facts have been discarded and shared decorum has gone out the window, replaced by intimidation and violence. Democracy’s unconditional support of free speech has been weaponized and used to justify the distribution and amplification of the outrageous and untrue. The folks at Pod Save America took to their blog to describe how we got to where we are today.

The company’s lip-service defense of free speech is in practice a choice to collapse the distinction between disinformation and news-analysis. The right-wing narrative of social-media censorship is dishonest, but it has also been incredibly effective in pressuring platforms into accepting lies as opinion.

– Facebook Is The World’s Biggest Right-Wing Media Company

We must return to Jarvis’ framework for the internet as a conversation to better understand how to manage our way forward. “Twitter is not The New York Times. It is Times Square,” says Jarvis. In a public space, no one would tolerate someone screaming and threatening another individual or group with half-baked ideas. To curate a debate that improves our understanding of the world today, we should favor voices that respectfully lay out an argument that is well-researched and moves the debate forward. We have too many hair-raising threats to our existence just over the horizon to waste our time on anything less.

My 7th grade school bus driver was this amazing woman who managed to keep the 50-odd kids on her bus in line during our 30-minute ride through rural Connecticut to John Winthrop Junior High. She had this enormous, panoramic mirror so she could keep an eye on things. Whenever things started to get out of hand, she’d peer up into the mirror and stared into your soul while bellowing, “KNOCK IT OFF BACK THERE!” Justice was meted out equally, without bias or favor.

The social networks need to start acting more like that school bus driver, keeping us kids in line, with a modicum of civility and mutual respect, so no one gets hurt and we can move the conversation forward.

Leave a comment