The list of dissident Facebook employees is growing. In a recent talk, Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, said, “We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” He aimed his criticism squarely at the like and heart mechanisms, lamenting that these engines of virality create “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops [that] are destroying how society works.” The results, at their most disastrous, can be seen around the world: fake WhatsApp rumors leading to lynchings in India, Facebook disinformation driving the Rohingya genocide, and the most powerful person in the world using Twitter to regularly push inflammatory and outright false material.
That people who grew rich off of Facebook — the list includes former company president Sean Parker — are now criticizing their former meal ticket is notable. The social networking giant induces a level of cult-like support among many of its employees, who have bought into Mark Zuckerberg’s pseudo-humanitarian message of connection and individual empowerment. Even Palihapitiya, a refusenik who doesn’t let his kids use the platform, says that Facebook “overwhelmingly does good in the world.”
But you needn’t have the privileged perch of a Silicon Valley VP to know that something has gone horribly wrong with our social-media platforms, particularly in how misinformation, micro-targeted advertising, and viral mobs can be marshaled to harass, confuse, and intimidate political opponents. In the United States, the overriding question is whether these tactics can swing elections. But every week seems to bring smaller, equally resonant examples of right-wing charlatans like Mike Cernovich and James O’Keefe weaponizing social media to launch bad-faith attacks against their putative enemies. Whether it’s Sam Seder — an MSNBC personality whom the network fired and then rehired after Cernovich launched a smear campaign against him — or a previously little-known Twitter user, individuals are left exposed to doxing, harassment, and job loss that make 2014’s Gamergate fiasco seem like a test run for techniques that have now become run-of-the-mill.
Social media is constructed around hierarchies of follower accounts, retweets, likes, official or authenticated users, and other markers of prestige. It’s a reputation economy that an elite few have managed to monetize and others have managed to weaponize. In our global panopticon, everyone is looking at everyone, with a great deal of judgment, along with a snap-twitch willingness to call bullshit and initiate the outrage machine. All of us are, in essence, protecting and burnishing our brands, but for most of us, that means pleasing our comparatively small audience by regularly producing new content. It’s when someone with a small follower count is suddenly placed under the spotlight by, say, Cernovich that these power inequalities are garishly exposed.
We live, work, and play on the internet inside a surveillance culture built on mutual assessment and judgment. We are constantly looking at one another, rating each other’s content, deciding whether someone is worth following, assessing the latest bit of material coming over the transom to decide if it demands a retweet, like, or a response. The surveillance scholar David Lyon talks about risk mitigation and risk management being intrinsic parts of a surveillance culture. Many of us have internalized this process, performing an almost unconscious assessment of whether something is worth posting. For most individuals, this posture leaves them hopelessly exposed, the perennial risk being that they’ll become subject to the kind of viral mob that leaves them vulnerable and harassed — a process for which companies like Twitter seem to have no adequate solutions beyond advising that you turn off your notifications. For corporations and the mainstream media, this risk calculus puts them in a defensive posture that causes them to readily disavow or cut ties with anyone who might damage the brand.
It’s in this latter category that we can file the experience of Sam Seder. As soon as he was deemed a toxic personality, MSNBC decided to fire him — never mind that the details of his supposed scandal eventually proved exonerating. It was essential for MSNBC to limit its sense of risk and liability, even if the accusations originated in the cesspool of online alt-right discourse. The key difference lay in that one side was acting in bad faith, pushing a narrative it knew was wrong, while MSNBC blindly made the mistake of taking the accusations at face value.
This kind of thinking also seemed to fuel a recent email announcement by the New York Times that its freelance contributors should avoid social-media posts that may attract accusations of bias. (I’ve written for the Times and received the email.) Framed as an “ethics reminder,” the notice instructed that “freelancers should take care to avoid activities on social media that would damage the credibility of the journalism they do for The Times. Strident partisan advocacy or offensive personal attacks risk undercutting a reporter’s credibility.” As if money-starved freelancers weren’t already put on notice, the email added: “Times editors may decide not to offer future assignments if they believe a journalist’s online presence shows poor judgment or could undermine The Times’s reputation.”
The Times’ announcement unfairly demanded that freelance employees adhere to the kind of standards expected of full-time, salaried employees while also being vague about what counted as an acceptable “online presence.” The Times, it seemed, was taking an already precarious class of workers and forcing them to look over their collective shoulder. And what exactly constitutes “strident partisan advocacy,” especially in this deeply polarized political climate?
The Times seemed to be motivated by a risk-management mind-set under which individual rights, even those of freelancers, are secondary to preserving the integrity of the brand. The paper’s position is somewhat understandable: It depends on social platforms as distribution channels, so it is worried about how it is seen on those platforms. What makes this effort so foolhardy is that many of the Times’ critics, especially those on the far right, will never judge the newspaper in good faith — that is, with an openness to being convinced of their opponent’s opinions. Those who despise the Gray Lady will always find a reason to shout “fake news,” and a well-regulated social-media policy will do little to ameliorate that. Meanwhile, risk devolves onto easily jettisoned, individual contributors, not the brand itself. (It should also be noted that the email was sent by Philip Corbett, the paper’s associate managing editor for standards, who, it appears, has never tweeted.)
In rehiring Sam Seder, MSNBC may have finally learned the lesson of not taking right-wing smear artists at their word. Similarly, the Washington Post recently expertly debunked an attempted smear campaign by James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas organization (never mind that O’Keefe still advertised the debacle as a succèss de scandale). But the larger problem remains: Our social-media platforms are woefully unequal spaces, where users have little control over the discourse, much less their own reputations. And as long as these power dynamics remain undisturbed, there’s not much that can be done to strengthen democratic forces on social media.
So what are these billion-dollar corporations going to do to keep their users safe and to nurture healthy discourse? Some companies have responded by promising more moderation — Google recently announced its intent to hire 10,000 new moderators to oversee YouTube — which could help. Facebook has experimented with human moderators to parse and fact-check the news. But these are only half-measures that fail to address the larger inequities baked into these platforms’ designs.
The problem that is so clear on Twitter, and that is shared to some extent by other large platforms, is that most speech is treated equally. Hate goes viral just as readily — and sometimes faster — than the day’s dog memes. Contemptible figures like Richard Spencer and other leading white supremacists receive verified check marks, thereby elevating their status and ensuring that their content circulates more readily. (Twitter has lately begun to revisit its verification policy.) And Twitter’s own reporting mechanisms can seem so picayune and frustrating that it’s often not worth trying to report objectionable content. The result is a platform with a vaguely defined free-speech ethos and a far more pronounced Nazi problem.
Restoring Twitter’s egalitarian nature, then, will mean picking sides between those who weaponize the platform and those who use it as it’s intended. Guaranteeing expression means making users feel safe to express themselves — not just giving them an empty box to type in. More importantly, the entire structure of reputation on social media needs rethinking. Power should be dispersed away from those with inflated follower counts who know how to weaponize their audience. Despite all of its democratic intent, social platforms like Twitter also have a tendency to reproduce existing hierarchies, to privilege celebrities, corporations, politicians, and other influential figures. What if we had social platforms that didn’t constantly measure, assess, and rate us? That did away with follower counts and numbers of likes and retweets, which only serve to remind us of where we rank? These tools of assessment are what motivate so much bad behavior, along with the corporate colonization of our social networks. By pushing back against them — by demanding not to be rated, liked, or watched — we can take away one of the tools of the right-wing troll while also working to reform our culture of rampant surveillance. And perhaps finally, we can regain some measure of the elusive internet freedom so often promised to us.