It’s long past time for tech companies to acknowledge that wielding enormous publishing power requires taking editorial responsibility.
In the daze of an election post-mortem, there’s always plenty of culpability to go around.
The people who wanted Hillary Clinton to be the next president of the United States are angry at the voters who elected Donald Trump, of course, but they’re also mad at the media, and the leadership of both major political parties, and—a relative newcomer to the political blame-game—Silicon Valley.
This year's presidential contest thrust the tech industry into the political sphere in new ways, and Clinton’s loss is forcing tech leaders to reckon with what Trump’s victory means for them.
For one thing, a Trump presidency underscores the extent to which left-leaning Silicon Valley is in a silo, culturally and politically separate from a huge population of people who use their products. As the Politico writer Tony Romm pointed out in a tweet, tech is what drives the same forces of globalization so many of Trump’s supporters are pushing back against.
Trump’s victory is also reinvigorating the debate over the role of 21st-century publishing platforms—both as information disseminators and as centers for civic discourse. Part of this is because Clinton’s defeat came as such a shock to so many of those in the information business—journalists and tech companies included. (With Peter Thiel, the billionaire PayPal founder and Trump backer, as an obvious exception.) Bloomberg characterized the tech sector’s reaction to the election as “a wave of despair and anxiety:”
“This feels like the worst thing to happen in my life. I assume we'll get through it, but it sure doesn't feel that way right now,” Sam Altman, president of startup incubator Y Combinator, tweeted. "Is this what it felt like when people first realized hitler could actually take power?" tweeted Zynga co-founder Mark Pincus. Shervin Pishevar, the co-founder of Hyperloop One, even suggested that California secede.
What remains to be seen is whether that sense of anguish will translate to any legitimate soul searching about technology’s role in Trump’s ascent—or in facilitating democracy more broadly. Up until now, Silicon Valley’s leading publishing platforms—including Facebook, Twitter and others—have been adamantly, notoriously resistant to the idea that, as powerful publishers, they have an obligation to carry out basic editorial duties such as truth-seeking, fairness and quashing the spread of fake news and other misinformation from spreading across their websites.
The idea that people were inherently more careful with facts in a pre-internet era is wrong, and it fetishizes print history unnecessarily. But the ease with which misinformation can now spread online is alarming—and it’s legitimately harmful.
“There’s plenty of blame to go around, but the list of actors has to start with Facebook,” wrote Joshua Benton, the head of Nieman Lab, a think-tank at Harvard where I used to work. “And for all its wonders—reaching nearly 2 billion people each month, driving more traffic and attention to news than anything else on Earth—it’s also become a single point of failure for civic information. Our democracy has a lot of problems, but there are few things that could impact it for the better more than Facebook starting to care—really care—about the truthfulness of the news that its users share and take in.”
Benton gives the example of what he saw, in the days leading up to the election, on the Facebook page for the mayor of the small Louisiana town where Benton grew up.
Among the items he posted there in the final 48 hours of the campaign: Hillary Clinton Calling for Civil War If Trump Is Elected. Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President. Barack Obama Admits He Was Born in Kenya. FBI Agent Who Was Suspected Of Leaking Hillary’s Corruption Is Dead.
These are not legit anti-Hillary stories. (There were plenty of those, to be sure, both on his page and in this election cycle.) These are imaginary, made up, frauds. And yet Facebook has built a platform for the active dispersal of these lies—in part because these lies travel really, really well.
Naturally, journalists bristle at Facebook’s hands-off attitude toward accuracy. Not only is Facebook helping to destroy the journalism industry’s already badly failing ad-based business model; it’s decimating any sense of accuracy or civility as a core standard for companies whose technologies are used to publish information to the masses. (Not that news organizations are blameless, either: Consider how many of their websites feature comment sections that appear to be ignored by journalists and run by trolls.)
Twitter has become legendary for the abuse and harassment that takes place on its platform. And Facebook’s editorial missteps in recent months have come in a steady stream—from showcasing fake news in its trending section to censoring one of the most iconic war photos in the history of journalism.
Companies like Twitter and Facebook have been so adamant for so long that they are tech companies and not media companies, as if the two have to be mutually exclusive, that it seems unlikely for anything to make them acknowledge you can be both. Yet, it’s possible Trump’s victory will be a turning point.
“Among techies, there is now widespread concern that Facebook and Twitter have hastened the decline of journalism and the irrelevance of facts,” wrote Farhad Manjoo, a tech writer for The New York Times. “Social networks seem also to have contributed to a rise in the kind of trolling, racism and misogyny that characterized so much of Mr. Trump’s campaign.”
In the past, Facebook has been satisfied to spread information—be it news, baby photos, engagement announcements, or passing thoughts—without taking any real responsibility for how a message might be amplified. (The platform does have community standards which dictate when a post ought to be removed, but—as with Twitter—judgments have been unevenly and in many cases inexplicably applied.)
But Facebook is now a behemoth, the most powerful publisher on the planet, and it still doesn’t really care about the quality of the information flows through its distribution channels. The company has built a user experience that rewards people for seeing only want they want to—an algorithm shows people more of what they “like,” and people tend to “like” what they agree with. Benton calls this the weaponization of filter bubbles, a reference to the extent to which we are all increasingly ideologically segregated online (and offline, for that matter.)
And look, it’s understandable Facebook and Twitter have tried to resist the expensive, time-consuming and never-ending task of accepting editorial responsibility for what happens on their platforms. It’s way easier and way cheaper to turn away from such a big job—not to mention convenient, if disingenuous, to valorize this editorial aloofness as a commitment to neutrality, or openness, or free speech.
But it will become increasingly difficult for these platforms to convince people it’s morally defensible to wield such enormous publishing power without any regard for the consequences. After all, how a piece of technology is used is the thing that characterizes what a tool ultimately is.
In a digital world built of echo chambers, Donald Trump’s ascension might be the thing that finally reverberates back to Silicon Valley’s leaders—and makes them reflect on what it is they’ve actually created.