What the Fight Over Facebook Misses
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The President of the United States and one of America’s most powerful corporations are like spouses stuck in an argument over dirty socks: they are avoiding the real problem.
Over the past week, President Biden and Facebook have waged a war of words over vaccine misinformation. Each side has taken an extreme stance that has turned them and us away from a deeper problem: Americans have become so divided that it is difficult to even begin to confront our problems. We’ve seen it with the pandemic, climate change, violent crime and more.
My wish for all of us, our elected leaders and the tech companies that mediate our rhetoric, is that everyone sticks to what they can do to find common ground.
To recap the grudge match: President Biden said late last week that internet networks like Facebook were “killing people” because he thought they were not doing enough to stop the spread of misleading information on Covid-19 or vaccines against the virus. Facebook replied that it was helping save lives by amplifying authoritative information on coronaviruses and said the White House was trying to deflect the blame for missing its vaccination targets.
President Biden returned to his provocative language, but the White House continued to pressure Facebook to do more, including providing information on the prevalence of coronavirus misinformation on the social network. My colleague Sheera Frenkel indicated that Facebook did not have this data, in part because the company had not made an effort to discover it.
Exhausted yet? I am. My former colleague Charlie Warzel called it “a fine example of flattened, social media-influenced speech that plagues us all.”
Facebook and the White House are a bit right and wrong, as my colleague Cecilia Kang said in The Daily this week.
On the White House side, officials began with nuanced suggestions from the surgeon general for improving health reporting, including recommendations for government officials and social media companies. This was all but forgotten once the president and other officials started blaming Facebook bluntly.
Facebook is also somewhat right and wrong. Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview released Thursday that the public doesn’t view a police service as a failure if crime is greater than zero, implying that Facebook can’t get rid of every bad information or incitement to violence. That’s a fair point, and it raises questions about what Zuckerberg and the rest of us consider to be an acceptable level of misinformation and other egregious behavior on the site, and how the company measures success.
But it would help if Facebook did more to recognize an uncomfortable truth: Facebook, YouTube and Twitter play an important role in informing the public. and to misinform the public. It would also help if the company simply said out loud what Sheera reported – that it does not know the prevalence of misleading coronavirus information on its social network and cannot answer questions from the White House.
Doing this analysis would help improve our collective understanding of how news travels online, just as Facebook’s (belated and reluctant) self-assessment of Russian propaganda around the 2016 US election has improved our collective knowledge of foreign influence campaigns.
But if Facebook told us tomorrow how much misleading information was circulating about the coronavirus, Americans would still be arguing over what the data meant and what to do about it.
And we would repeat the same fights over who is to blame for disinformation, the limits on free speech and whether social platforms are doing too much or not enough to control what is said on their sites.
The fundamental problem is that we have so little common ground. We don’t all agree on the importance of focusing on a virus that has killed more than 600,000 Americans or on how to balance prevention measures that have disrupted people’s lives and the economy. We cannot agree on whether or how to slow climate change, and are not prepared to collectively face the consequences. It seems the only thing we can agree on is that the other side cannot be trusted.
Is it the fault of the business models and algorithms of social media companies, the people trying to make a quick buck, irresponsible politicians playing on our emotions, or our fears of getting sick or destitute? Yes.
This should not leave anyone or any company off the hook for fostering an environment of mistrust. But there is no simple answer to what disinformation researcher Renée DiResta has called a whole-of-society problem.
That’s why the days of feuds between the White House and Facebook are getting us nowhere. We focus on scoring points in arguments and details like missing data, and ignore the much larger picture. We cannot agree on anything important. We don’t trust each other. This is the real problem that we have to solve.
Rich guys in space: The internet was once the exclusive domain of big governments – until tech leaders made it a place for billions of people. Now technologists like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk want to do the same for space, write my colleagues David Streitfeld and Erin Woo.
Related: The Amazon founder’s space flight this week made Bezos the “Dorian Gray of stupidity,” Jacob Bernstein said.
Get ready to repair your own tractor! (If you want.) The Federal Trade Commission voted in favor of the “right to repair” principle, the idea that manufacturers of smartphones, household appliances and farm equipment should not prevent people from buying parts and manuals for the repair of products. Big companies like Apple and John Deere have cost people and the planet dearly by tightly controlling who can fix their products.
Watch the bears: We all deserve the live web feed of bears doing things about bears, Insider says.
Kisses to that
It’s a horse. Wear horse suspenders. Made from human bluejeans.
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