Actions taken by technology platforms in the wake of Capitol Hill’s events have generated intense debate, especially from within the tech community. But many of the loudest voices have shown little understanding of the nuance of the situation or the historical context of actions taken by various platforms.
Writing on her blog, Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation helpfully explains that Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and others have previously taken similar actions — they just didn’t involve an outgoing U.S. president. The idea of the US leader being first among equals is being challenged by this conflict, as are many notions about what is acceptable in American democracy. It is all deeply troubling.
My own opinion is that this collision of politics, society, and technology has been a long time coming. As far back as 2010, I have argued about the legislative challenges facing technology will be more acute than technological changes themselves. My argument has been that these social platforms are essentially nation-states and require a higher level of social and civic etiquette established and enforced through official policies. When evaluating the performance of Twitter, Facebook, and others on this particular score, the phrase I have often used is “dereliction of duty.”
We are here, at our collective present, because even well-intentioned companies have consistently failed to prioritize the fact technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Every person at the end of a device and every social media account is a component of our social fabric. It is naive to assume that network effects will exclusively be for the good, that there won’t be any bad characters or extreme exploitation of the technology. Every single technology throughout history has had unintended consequences, but in the modern world, these ripples now move at network scale. Today’s companies are responsible and accountable for recognizing the challenges and impact of scale — not just the pursuit of profit.
Due to their reach and central role in modern society, social media companies, in particular, have to stop thinking about themselves in monochromatic terms. Writing for Defense One, Peter Singer, the co-author of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, rightly points out that the recent headline-generating steps taken to foster a safer environment — both online and off — are long overdue. “They are not just tech creators or even the equivalent of news-media editors. After years of dodging it, they get that they are running information warzones,” Singer writes. They being social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Singer’s framing of the social platform as a battlefield is particularly important for thinking about the future. In his assessment of the seriousness of the events of last week for The New York Times, Yale professor Timothy Snyder wrote, “Post-truth is pre-fascism.” Whether we participate on the platforms or not, we will all suffer the ultimate cost of lies.
January 11, 2021, San Francisco