Facebook: Constitution before statutes

Constitution of America, We the People.

The Facebook Oversight Board is now open for cases and I look forward to seeing the results. But I have the same question I’ve had since the planning for its creation began, and I asked that question in a web call today with board leadership:

What higher principles will the Board call upon in making its decisions? It will be ruling on Facebook’s content decisions based on the company’s own statutes — that is, the “community standards” Facebook sets for the community. 

The Board says it will also decide cases on the basis of international human rights standards. This could mean the board might find that Facebook correctly enforced its statute but that the statute violates a principle of human rights, which would result in a policy recommendation to Facebook. Good. 

But there remains a huge gap between community statutes and international human rights law. What is missing, I have argued, is a Constitution for Facebook: a statement of why it exists, what kind of community it wants to serve, what it expects of its community, in short: a north star. That doesn’t exist. 

But the Oversight Board might — whether it and Facebook know it or not — end up writing that Constitution, one in the English model, set by precedent, rather than the American model, set down in a document. That will be primarily in Facebook’s control. Though the Oversight Board can pose policy questions and make recommendations, it is limited by what cases come its way — from users and Facebook — and it does not set policy for the company; it only decides appeals and makes policy recommendations. 

It’s up to Facebook to decide how it treats the larger policy questions raised by the Oversight Board and the cases. In reacting to recommendations, Facebook can begin to build a set of principles that in turn begin to define Facebook’s raison d’être, its higher goals, its north star, its Constitution. That’s what I’ve told people at Facebook I want to see happen. 

The problem is, that’s not how Facebook or any of the technology companies think. Since, as Larry Lessig famously decreed, code is law, what the technologists want is rules — laws — to feed their code — their algorithms — to make consistent decisions at scale. 

The core problem of the technology companies and their relationship with society today is that they do not test that code and the laws behind it against higher principles other than posters on the wall: “Don’t be evil.” “Work fast and break things.” Those do not make for a good Constitution. 

But now is their chance to create one. And now, perhaps, is our chance. I didn’t realize that every Oversight Board case will begin with a public comment period. So we can raise issues with the Board. Indeed, community standards should come from the community, damnit, or they’re not community standards; they’re company standards. So we should speak up. 

And the Board will consult experts. They can raise issues with the Board. And the Board can, in turn, raise issues not just for Facebook but, by example, for all the technology companies. That discussion could be useful. 

Imagine if — as I so wish had been the case — the Board had been in operation when Twitter and Facebook decided what to do about blocking the blatant attempt at election interference by the New York Post and Rupert Murdoch in cahoots with Rudy Giuliani. The Board could have raised, addressed, and proposed policy recommendations based on principles useful to many internet companies and to the media that love to poke them. 

Regulators could also get involved productively more than punitively. I was a member of a Transatlantic Working Group on Content Moderation and Freedom of Expression, which recommended a flexible framework for regulation that would have government hold companies accountable for their own assurances, requiring the companies to share data on usage and impact so researchers and regulators can monitor their performance. This, in my view, would be far better than government trying to tell companies how to operate, especially when it comes to interference in free speech. But government can’t hold companies accountable to keeping promises if there are no promises to keep. A Constitution is a promise, a covenant with users and the public. Every company should have one. Every company should be held accountable for meeting its requirements. And the public discussion should revolve around those principles, not around whether Johnny is allowed to use a bad word. 

I make no predictions here. The Board could end up answering a handful of picayune complaints among tens of thousands of possible cases a week and produce the script of an online soap opera. Facebook could follow the letter of the law set down by the Board and miss the opportunity to set higher goals. Media, experts, and the public could be ignored or worse could just continue to snipe instead of contribute constructively. 

But I can hope. The net is young. We — all of us — are still designing it by how we use it. 

The end of applause

The pandemic has killed clapping.

In the abstract, applause is stupid: You hit yourself, but only when in the company of others hitting themselves, to show approval.

The end of applause occurred to me as I watched recent events: Apple’s latest product announcement sans clapping geeks and sycophants (revealing its true aesthetic as just another infomercial); the US Open with tepid, sitcom-like clap-tracks where cheers would have been; the Democrats’ intimate and audience-free YouTube convention — which I wrote about here; and Sarah Cooper’s opener for Jimmy Kimmel’s show. I’m in awe of Cooper anyway, but watching her monologue, I marveled at the courage of a comedian telling jokes without the immediate feedback of laughter, applause, and cheers: without an audience, or at least one that could be heard. YouTubers find this normal; old farts, strange.

Applause is binary: it is or it isn’t. To put this in McLuhanesque terms, hands are a medium with but one message at a time. Hands can hit each other. Hands can pound a table. (The first time I ended a presentation in a German board room, they started banging on the table and I thought, ‘Oh, hell, I’ve just pissed off a bunch of angry Germans,’ only to realize this was deutsch for applause.) Hands can also silently show a thumb or a finger or a fist. The hand was the medium allowed to an audience.

Jay Rosen famously talks about “the people formerly known as the audience,” his heuristic to get us to think about the change in the relationship of journalist or media with the public, who are no longer passive recipients and consumers of the commodity we call content but who now have a voice.

Voice brings substance, nuance, complexity. That richer message can be expressed on Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Reddit, YouTube, forums, comments. It’s not easy to listen to voice. Media do not know how to listen to us. It’s a lot easier to reduce people to the noise of a crowd — applause, cheers, chants — or to numbers in a poll — red v. blue, black v. white, 99% v. 1%, pro v. con. Mass media abhor any voice but their own.

The internet abhors being silenced. It will burst around any barrier to enable its users to be heard another way. Donald Trump may have tried to ban TikTok and silence Sarah Cooper — as the Chinese government tries to ban American platforms and silence its citizens — but both will fail. People will find their voices elsewhere.

Even so, media will still insist on trying to agglomerate the voices on the net into binary buckets, reductionist headlines, and shallow hot takes. I despise headlines that declare, “Twitter hates…” or “Twitter loves…” or “Twitter goes nuts over…” as if there were one social voice, Twitter, and our only role in it is to contribute to a single, monolithic bottom line of collective opinion. In writing those takes, media people ignore the essence of what social media enable: individual voices. This is how media failed to provide a place for #BlackLivesMatter; social media had to.

But social media companies are not blameless in this attempt to reduce the voices of their users to applause or boos. I also abhor “trending” features on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, for they seriously misrepresent the experience there. Many years ago, when I interviewed Mark Zuckerberg for a book, he said that no two people on earth see the same Facebook. That is true, too, of Twitter — and the internet, for that matter — unlike old media. So to say — as The New York Times’ Kevin Roose tries to, using Facebook’s own data — that this story or that is the most seen on Facebook is to elevate something few people see into something more important than it is, as Casey Newton explains. It is like saying all of America — or half of America — is under the sway of Fox News when, in fact, only about 3 million people (1 percent of the country) watch in prime time. In my social feed, I see very few of the topics that are trending and I see next to none of the poisonous right-wing stories media fret about because I and my friends are neither hip nor nazi.

The late Columbia professor James Carey famously wrote that the press exists not to transmit information but instead to provide ritual — that is, a confirming view of ourselves, like a mass (the Catholic kind, not the media, marketing, or manufacturing kind). The picture that the press paints of us is distorted. The view that the press presents of our life in social media is false. The net finally allows us to be heard as more than the sounds of hands clapping and yet we are still reduced to poll numbers or trending topics or ersatz applause. And so, I do not regret the passing of applause in the pandemic. I await the sound of the voices we can now hear instead.

There is much work yet to do to help us hear each others’ voices. As I’ve said before, until now, the net has been built just to speak, not to listen. I celebrate that speech, the voices too long not heard in mass media. But we need many more tools to help us discover voices and messages worth listening to, to better represent the nuanced public conversation, to convene us into true conversation. It will come, in time. Until then, learn to enjoy the absence of applause, the silence.

Attacks on the People’s Press

Donald Trump’s war on TikTok in U.S. and Rupert Murdoch’s on Facebook in Australia are not being seen for their true import: as government attacks on the people’s press, on freedom of expression, on human rights. 

In Australia, Facebook just said that if Murdoch-backed legislation requiring platforms to pay for news is enacted, the company will stop media companies — and users — from posting news on Facebook and Instagram.

Who is hurt there? The public and its conversation. The public loses access to its means of sharing and debating news. Never before in history — never before the internet — has everyone had access to a press; only the privileged had it and now the privileged will rob the people of theirs. Without the people’s press, we would not have #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #OccupyWallStreet and the voices of so many too long not heard. This is a matter of human rights. 

The Australian legislation is a cynical mess. It is bald protectionism by Murdoch and the old, corporate press, requiring platforms to “negotiate” with guns to their heads for the privilege of quoting, promoting, and sending traffic, audience, and tremendous value to news sites. It is illogical. Facebook, Google, et al did not steal a penny from old media. They competed. To say that Facebook owes newspapers is a white plutocrat’s regressive view of reparations; by this logic Amazon owes Walmart who owes A&P who owes the descendents of Luigi’s corner grocery who owes a pushcart vegetable vendor on Hester Street. Facebook owes news nothing. 

This is a case of outrageous regulatory capture on Murdoch’s part. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about news and informed democracy. He, more than any human being alive, has been the scourge of democracy in the English-speaking world. The Australian legislation aims to give money only to large publishers, like Murdoch. If Facebook makes good on its threat and bans news, then the news business as a whole will suffer but the largest players in the field, who have brand recognition — i.e., Murdoch — will gain market share over smaller and newer competitors. Murdoch will be even freer to spread his propaganda. This is an attempt by the old press to impose a Stamp Tax on the new. Facebook is right to resist, just as Google was when Spain imposed its Stamp Tax on links (and Google News left the country). 

Now to Trump’s war on TikTok. This, too, is a matter of freedom of expression. TikTok is, to my mind, the first platform to begin to make us rethink media and the line separating producer and audience, for TikTok is a collaborative platform where people do not just comment on each others content but create together. It is the one social network that Trump and his cultists have not managed to game. It is the platform that has enabled Sarah Cooper and countless citizens to mock Trump. So he hates it and wants to abuse his power to kill it. 

If TikTok goes because of government fiat, so goes Sarah Cooper’s ability to criticize the man who killed it. What could be a clearer violation of the First Amendment? Why is no one screaming this? It’s because, I think, the old press still thinks the meaning of the “press” is a machine that spreads ink. No. The internet is the people’s press. It is a machine that spreads power. 

Keep in mind that none of these platforms was built for news and their lives would all, frankly, be easier without it and the controversy and advertiser repellant it brings. Facebook was built for hookups and party pix. The people decided to use it to share and discuss news. Twitter was built to tell friends where you were drinking. The people decided to use it to share what they witness with the world, to discuss public policy, and to organize movements. Google was built to find web sites, not news, but it added the ability to find news when the people showed they wanted that. YouTube was built to stream silly videos. The people decided they would use it for everything from education to news. TikTok was built to lip-sync music. The people decided they would use it to mock the fool in the White House. 

In every case, media could have built what the platforms did. They could have provided people a place to share what they witness and discuss public issues; instead, they provided dark, dank, neglected corners in which to comment on the journalist’s content. They could have provided a place for communities to meet, gather together, to share, to assemble and act. They did not. They could have provided a place for creators to collaborate but instead they care only about their own creation. News media blew every opportunity. Their publics— their readers, viewers, listeners, users, customers — went elsewhere to take advantage of the power the internet offered them. Platforms shared that power with the public. Publishers did not. The platforms owe the publishers nothing. The publishers owe their publics apologies. 

Now, of course, cynical Murdoch and his media mates found an ideal foil in Mark Zuckerberg because, these days, nobody likes Mark, right? Why is that? In part, of course, it’s because Mark is incredibly rich and not terribly telegenic and because he cannot control the bucking bronco he is riding. But it is also because of media’s narrative about him: that he is suddenly the cause of societal ills that have been around since man learned to talk. Please keep in mind when you read media stories about Facebook that even if subconsciously, reporters are writing from a position of jealous conflict of interest. Murdoch, more than any publisher this side of Germany, has sicced his troops on Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the internet, which they believe has robbed them of their manifest destiny and dollars. 

Necessary disclosure: Facebook has funded projects related to disinformation and news at my school, some of them reaching an end. I receive nothing personally from Facebook or any technology company, other than free drinks at the conferences they hold to help the news industry. I am accused of defending Facebook, though Facebook does always not make it easy to defend and I’m often critical of it. What I am defending is the internet and the power it gives citizens at last. What I am defending is the people’s press. 

I would like to hear First Amendment lawyers and scholars in the U.S. and human-rights advocates the world around defend the people’s press from attacks in the Philippines, Russia, China, Hong Kong, Hungary, Turkey, Belarus, Brazil — and in the United States and Australia. 

None of this is new. Every time there is a new technology that enables more people to speak, those who controlled the old technology — and the power it afforded — try to prevent the people they see as interlopers from sharing that power. It happened when scribe Filippo de Strata tried to convince the doge of Venice to outlaw the press and the drunken Germans who brought it to Italy. Princes tried to grant printing monopolies to allies. Popes and kings and autocrats of late banned and burned books and the people who wrote them. England had the Stationers Company license and censor authorized publishing. Charles II tried to close coffeehouses to shut off the discussion of news in them. American newspaper publishers tried to have new radio competitors banned from broadcasting news. Each time, eventually, they lost. For speech will out. 

Teapot and lid. Left side is marked “America: Liberty Restored” and right side is marked “No Stamp Act.” 2006.0229.01ab.

The YouTube convention

Tragic circumstances forced them into it, but the Democrats created the first democratic convention, the convention for citizens.

It is the YouTube convention, with all the intimacy and directness the medium of the age demands: click on Michelle Obama and she speaks directly to you and no one else: not to a cheering crowd, the mass; not to delegates who are included through patronage and politics, to the exclusion of everyone else. YouTube is one of the mechanisms of the public conversation the internet provides and the Democrats had to learn how to use it.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump pines for the roaring crowd, the now extinct kind of convention that was an institution of television and mass media: the really big show, the firepit for enthusiasm and anger and, in its dying breath, authoritarian adulation. Now who’s going to sit home in front of a laptop chanting “Lock her up!”? Fools, that’s who.

The internet is far from finished. In this early phase, it has been built to speak — so, at long last, voices too long not heard in mass media finally have microphones of their own. I celebrate that. But the net has not yet been built to listen, to converse, to cooperate. TikTok, just a toy still, is the first net tool I’ve seen that’s designed for public collaboration, for taking someone else’s sound or video and responding or reinterpreting. It’s a start. It also befuddles Donald Trump as TikTok is not built for fanning hatred; this is why he hates it. On the prior net, on YouTube, in newspaper comments and forums, in Facebook and Twitter, what passes for conversation is reaction. And so this Democratic YouTube Convention will be an unfinished artifact of a transition out of Gutenberg’s age of hot text and McLuhan’s age of cool television, out of the primordial internet into the age of whatever’s next. [You can tell I’m working on a book.] This event is not a conversation, not yet. But moving down from the rostrum to the humble webcam forced the Democrats to speak eye-to-eye, at a human level, and to find something to say that is worth listening to. That can be the start of conversation.

The YouTube convention doesn’t supersede just the hoary delegates in the hall but also news media there: television and print. I say this, too, is a good thing. In years past, news organizations wasted huge money on institutional and individual ego, sending 15,000 journalists to “cover” the conventions where nothing happened that was not known and scripted. It was a show of access — of savvy, as Jay Rosen would say. The pols and the journalists put on shows for each other, not for the nation. The journalists and pols got to be inside and the rest of us were left out. They danced, pranced, pontificated, prognosticated, and predicted and never listened to us, the public. Now that’s over. Good riddance.

The Democrats have missed a few beats. I wish they put every single speech into their site and YouTube channel so we each could remix and share our own conventions the morning after. David Weinberger calls these Citizen Cuts. I wish they had invited YouTube videos from citizens to talk about the issues and expectations we have — messages produced by citizens, not producers. But still, it’s a start.

The history of print, media & journalism in 45 minutes

Here is a video I made for all our incoming students at the Newmark Journalism School about the history of media and journalism. In years past, I’ve had the high honor an opportunity to brainwash the entire incoming classes in orientation, giving them some context, history, and theory of journalism. It is usually a string of all-morning discussions. But what with COVID, it was decided that this year, staring at my face for three hours straight would be inhuman, and so I recorded the substance of each session as a video for later discussion.

In this one, I start with movable type and cover a half-millennium of history, up through the creation of the newspaper, steam and the penny press and mass, the telegraph and broadcast.

I made other videos about the business of journalism and the role and goals of the journalist that I’ll post later.