Sometimes, things need to get bad before they can get good. Such is the case, I fear, with content, conversation, and advertising on the net. But I see signs of progress.
First let’s be clear: No one — not platforms, not ad agencies and networks, not brands, not media companies, not government, not users — can stand back and say that disinformation, hate, and incivility are someone else’s problem to solve. We all bear responsibility. We all must help by bringing pressure and demanding quality; by collaborating to define what quality is; by fixing systems that enable manipulation and exploitation; and by contributing whatever resources we have (ad dollars to links to reporting bad actors).
Last May, I wrote about fueling a flight to quality. Coming up on a year later, here’s what I see happening:
- Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently posted a thread acknowledging his company’s responsiblity to the health and civility of the public conversation and asking for help in a bunch of very knotty issues balancing openness with civility, free speech with identifying and stopping harassment and disinformation. It is an important step.
- Facebook made what I now come to understand was an unintended but critical mistake at the start of News Feed when it threw all “public content” into one big tub with few means for identifying differences in quality. Like Twitter and like the net culture itself, Facebook valued openness and equality. But when some of that content — especially Russian disinformation and manipulation campaigns — got them in trouble, they threw out the entire tub of bathwater. Now they’re trying to bring some of the better babies back by defining and promoting quality news. This, too, involves many difficult questions about the definitions of quality and diversity. But when it is done, I hope that good content can stand out.
- In that post last May, I wrote about how Google Search would thenceforth account for the reliability, authority, and quality of sources in ranking. Bravo. I believe we will see that as a critical moment in the development of the net. But as we see in the news about Logan Paul and Alex Jones on YouTube, there is still work to be done on the ad side of the company. A system that enables platforms to give audience and major brands to give financial support to the likes of Jones is broken. Can we start there?
- Through the News Integrity Initiative,* we helped start an effort called Open Brand Safety to identify the worst, low-hanging, rotten fruit of disinformation sites to help advertisers shun them. It’s still just a bare beginning. But through it, we have seen that not-insignificant amounts of ad dollars still go to known crap sites.
- That is why I’ve joined an effort to organize a meeting later this month, bringing together the many organizations trying to identify signals of quality v. crap with representatives from platforms, ad networks, ad agencies, brands, NGOs, and others. I do not believe the solution is one-size-fits-all black lists and white lists, for it is impossible to define trust and quality for everyone — Gerber and Red Bull have different standards for advertising, as they should. What I’ve been arguing for is a network made up of all these constituencies to share signals of quality or a lack of it so each company can use that information to inform decisions about ranking, promotion, ad buys, and so on. I’ll report more when this happens.
I’ve spoken with the people in these companies and I believe their sincerity in trying to tackle this problem. I also see the complexity of the issues involved. We all want to preserve the openness of our internet but we also have to acknowledge that that openness makes the net vulnerable to manipulation by bad actors. So, to start, we need to recognize, reveal, and counteract that manipulation while also identifying and supporting good content.
It is because I believe in the need for openness that I will continue to argue that the the internet is not a medium and the platforms are not publishers. When the net is viewed as a next-generation medium like a newspaper or TV network, that brings perilous presumptions — namely that the net should be edited and packaged like a media property. I don’t want that. I treasure the openness and freedom that allow me to blog and say whatever I want and to find and hear voices I never was able to hear through the eye of media’s needle.
I also think it’s important to recognize that scale is a double-edged sword: It is the scale of the net and the platforms that enables anyone anywhere to speak to anyone else without need of capital, technical expertise, or permission. But it is also scale that makes the problems being addressed here so difficult to attack. No, the platforms should not — I do not want them to — pass judgment on everything that is posted on the net through them. I do not want the platforms to be my or your editor, to act like media or to build a Chinese internet.
But the platforms — and media companies like them — can no longer sit back and argue that they are just mirrors to society. Society warped and cracked itself to exploit their weaknesses. Facebook is not blameless in enabling Russian disinformation campaigns; YouTube is not blameless in creating a mechanism that allows and pays for Alex Jones to spew his bile; Twitter is not blameless in helping to foster incivility. Add to that: news organizations are not blameless in helping to spread disinformation and give it attention, and in fueling polarization and incivility. The ad industry is not blameless in helping to support the manipulators, spammers, trolls, and haters. Law enforcement is not blameless when it does not alert platforms and media companies to intelligence about bad actors. And you — yes, you and I — are not blameless when we share, click on, laugh at, encourage, and fail to report the kind of behavior that threatens our net.
Every effort I mention here is just a beginning. Every one of them is entangled with knotty questions. We need to help each other tackle this problem and protect our net. We need to discuss our mutual, moral responsibility to society and to an informed, civil, and productive public conversation.
There is much more to be done: Journalists and news organizations need to help the platforms define quality (wisely but generously to continue to encourage new and diverse voices). Journalists should also get smarter about not being exploited by manipulators. And news organizations need to do much more to build bridges between communities in conflict to foster understanding and empathy. The platforms, researchers, law enforcement, and NGOs should share alerts about manipulation they see to cut the bad guys off at the pass. Ad networks and platforms have to make it possible for advertisers to support the quality not the crap (and not claim ignorance of where their dollars go). Consumers — now banded together by campaigns like Sleeping Giants and Grab Your Wallet — need to continue to put pressure on platforms, brands, agencies, and networks and thereby give them cover so they are empowered to do what’s right.
Above all, let’s please remember that the internet is not ruined just because there are a few assholes on it. This, too, is why I insist on not seeing the net as a medium. It is Times Square. On Times Square, you can find pickpockets and bad Elmos and idiots, to be sure. But you also find many more nice tourists from Missoula and Mexico City and New Yorkers trying to dodge them on their way to work. Let’s bring some perspective to the media narrative about the net today. Please go take a look at your Facebook or Twitter or Instagram feeds or any Google search. I bet you will not find them infested with nazis and Russians and trolls, oh, my. I bet you will still find, on the whole, decent people like you and me. I fear that if we get carried away by moral panic we will end up not with a bustling Times Square of an internet but with China or Singapore or Iran as the model for a controlled digital future.
The net is good. We can and should make it better. We must protect it. That’s what these efforts are about.
*Disclosure: NII is funded by Facebook, Craig Newmark, the Ford Foundation, AppNexus, and others.