Facebook’s long-term refusal to strike down Holocaust-denial content is not a problem specific to Facebook. It’s not a decision limited to Zuckerberg or a few feckless executives. The problem is not even limited to tech.
Facebook’s purported refusal of politics — its reluctance to accept that it has always been a political actor and that its content-moderation policies and algorithms have real-world effects on what people believe and what they do, up to and including acts of physical violence as in Myanmar — is a structural feature of shareholder capitalism. A content ecosystem whose leaders are so timid as to let Holocaust denial flourish is the logical result of an approach to management that views its only responsibility as minimizing costs and maximizing market capitalization.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are the seeds of a new generation of open platforms and technologies aimed at evolving the platform paradigm to one of transparency, value share, and universal governance representation. Sharing value with users via data revenue share; allowing users access to insights generated about them and their peers and help to understand who is trying to engage with them and why; rev share and benefits for service providers; collaborative governance; and abolition of unilateral platform expulsion or rule changes are just several of the major changes on the table. A whole host of new open platform operating protocols is emerging.
With the moral and commercial high ground in clear sight, Tim Cook used the spotlight at Stanford University’s commencement ceremony Saturday to slam Big Tech peers Google, Facebook, and Twitter for failing to take responsibility for the hateful content and disinformation on their platforms.
These questions would be preludes to less abstract ones that will seem more familiar to the creatures of Silicon Valley. Is Facebook responsible if people use WhatsApp and Messenger to spread false news and incite genocide? Is that just the fault of (heinous) people being (heinous) people or should the platforms be held accountable? As for privacy and data collection, what rights do people have to safeguard their information from the communications platforms they use? What does data scraped from Google search or Amazon’s facial recognition technology have to do with our identities? Can data be human?
If criticism of Twitter and the news media is ubiquitous, it is largely because content on those platforms so often fails to rise to the challenge of responsibility. It aims to produce outrage and push partisan narratives without interrogating its assumptions and all the facts in play. It lacks thought at a time when the endless and rapid reproduction of content in digital space demands we be more thoughtful than ever because we never know where and in how many places our words will reappear.