Facebook. Sigh.

I’d rather like to inveigh against Facebook right now as it would be convenient, given that ever since I raised money for my school from the company, it keeps sinking deeper in a tub of hot, boiling bile in every media story and political pronouncement about its screwups. Last week’s New York Times story about Facebook sharing data with other companies seemed to present a nice opportunity to thus bolster my bona fides. But then not so much.

The most appalling revelation in The Times story was that Facebook “gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.” I was horrified when I read that and was ready to raise the hammer. But then I read Facebook’s response.

Specifically, we made it possible for people to message their friends what music they were listening to in Spotify or watching on Netflix directly from the Spotify or Netflix apps….

In order for you to write a message to a Facebook friend from within Spotify, for instance, we needed to give Spotify “write access.” For you to be able to read messages back, we needed Spotify to have “read access.” “Delete access” meant that if you deleted a message from within Spotify, it would also delete from Facebook. No third party was reading your private messages, or writing messages to your friends without your permission. Many news stories imply we were shipping over private messages to partners, which is not correct.

And I read other background, including from Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former head of security, who has been an honest broker in these discussions:

And there’s James Ball, a respected London journalist — ex Guardian and BuzzFeed — who is writing a critical book about the internet:

In short: Of course, Netflix and Spotify had to be given the ability to send, receive, and delete messages as that was the only way the messaging feature could work for users. Thus in its story The Times comes off like a member of Congress grandstanding at a hearing, willfully misunderstanding basic internet functionality. Its report begins on a note of sensationalism. And not until way down in the article does The Times fess up that it similarly received a key to Facebook data. So this turns out not to be the ideal opening for inveighing. But I won’t pass up the opportunity.

The moral net

I’ve had a piece in the metaphorical typewriter for many months trying to figure out how to write about the moral responsibility of technology (and media) companies. It has given me an unprecedented case of writer’s block as I still don’t know how to attack the challenge. I interviewed a bunch of people I respect, beginning with my friend and mentor Jay Rosen, who said that we don’t even have agreement on the terms of the discussion. I concur. People seem to assume there are easy answers to the questions facing the platforms, but when the choices gets specific — free speech vs. control, authority vs. diversity, civility as censorship — the answers no longer look so easy.

None of this is to say that Facebook is not fucking up. It is. But its fuckups are not so much of the kind The Times, The Guardian, cable news, and others in media dream of in their dystopias: grand theft user data! first-degree privacy murder! malignant corporate cynicism! war on democracy! No, Facebook’s fuckups are cultural in the company — as in the Valley — which is to say they are more complex and might go deeper.

For example, I was most appalled recently when Facebook — with three Jewish executives at the head — hired a PR company to play into the anti-Semitic meme of attacking George Soros because he criticized Facebook. What the hell were they thinking? Why didn’t they think?

This case, I think, revealed the company’s hubristic opacity, the belief that it could and should get away with something in secret. I’m sure I needn’t point out the irony of a company celebrating publicness being so — to understate the case — taciturn. Facebook must learn transparency, starting with openness about its past sins. I’ve been saying the company needs to perform an audit of its past performance and clear the decks once and for all. But transparency is not just about confession. Transparency should be about pride and value. From the top, Facebook needs to infuse its culture with the idea that everything everyone does should shine in the light of public scrutiny. The company has to learn that secrecy is neither a cloak nor a competitive advantage (hell, who are its competitors anyway?) but a severe liability.

Facebook and its leaders are often accused of cynicism. I have a different diagnosis. I think they are infected with latent and lazy optimism. I do believe that they believe a connected world is a better world — and I agree with that. But Facebook, like its neighbors in Silicon Valley, harbored too much faith in mankind and — apart from spam— did not anticipate how it would be manipulated and thus did not guard against that and protect the public from it. I often hear Facebook accused of leaving trolling and disinformation online because it makes money from those pageviews. Nonsense. Shitstorms are bad for business. I think it’s the opposite: Facebook and the other platforms have not calculated the full cost of finding and compensating for manipulation, fraud, and general assholery. And in some fairness to them, we as a society have not yet agreed on what we want the platforms to do, for I often hear people say — in the same breath or paragraph — that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube must clean up their messes … but also that no one trusts them to make these judgments. What’s a platform to do?

If Facebook and its league had acted with transparent good faith in enacting their missions — and bad faith in anticipating the behavior of some small segment of malignant mankind — then perhaps when Russian or other manipulation reared its head the platforms would have been on top of the problem and would even have garnered sympathy for being victims of these bad actors. But no. They acted impervious when they weren’t, and that made it easier to yank them down off their high horses. Media — once technoboosters — now treat the platforms, especially Facebook, as malign actors whose every move and motive is to destroy society.

I have argued for a few years now that Facebook should hire an editor to bring a sense of public responsibility to the company and its products. As a journalist, that’s rather conceited, for as I’ll confess shortly, journalists have issues, too. Then perhaps Facebook should hire ethicists or philosophers or clergy or an Obama or two. It needs a strong, empowered, experienced, trusted, demanding, tough force in its executive suite with the authority to make change. While I’m giving unsolicited advice, I will also suggest that when Facebook replaces its outgoing head of coms and policy, Elliot Schrage, it should separate those functions. The head of policy should ask and demand answers to tough questions. The head of PR is hired to avoid tough questions. The tasks don’t go together.

So, yes, I’ll criticize Facebook. But I also believe it’s important for us in journalism to work with Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, et al because they are running the internet of the day; they are the gateways to the public we serve; and they need our help to do the right thing. (That’s why I do what I do in the projects I linked to in the first sentence above.)

Moral exhibitionism

Instead, I see journalists tripping over each other to brag on social media about leaving social media. “I’m deleting Facebook — find me on Instagram,” they proclaim, without irony. “I deleted Facebook” is the new “I don’t own a TV.” This led me to tweet:

People with discernible senses of humor got the gag. One person attacked me for not attacking Facebook. And meanwhile, a few journalists agonized about the choice. A reporter I whose work I greatly respect, Julia Ioffe, was visibly torn, asking:

I responded that Facebook enriches her reporting and that journalists need more — not fewer — ways to listen to the public we serve. She said agreed with that. (I just asked what she decided and Ioffe said she is staying on Facebook.)

Quitting Facebook is often an act of the privileged. (Note that lower income teens are about twice as likely to use Facebook as teens from richer families.) It’s fine for white men like me to get pissy and leave because we have other outlets for our grievances and newsrooms are filled with people who look like us and report on our concerns. Without social media, the nation would not have had #metoo or #blacklivesmatter or most tellingly #livingwhileblack, which reported nothing that African-Americans haven’t experienced but which white editors didn’t report because it wasn’t happening to them. The key reason I celebrate social media is because it gives voice to people who for too long have not been heard. And so it is a mark of privilege to condemn all social media — and the supposed unwashed masses using them — as uncivilized. I find that’s simply not true. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of smart, concerned, witty, constructive people with a wide (which could always be wider) diversity of perspective. I respect them. I learn by listening to them.

When I talked about all this on the latest This Week in Google, I received this tweet in response:

I thanked Jeff and immediately followed him on Facebook.

A moral mirror

These days, too much of the reporting about the internet is done without knowledge of how technology works and without evidence behind the accusations made. I fear this is fueling a moral panic that will lead to legislation and regulation that will affect not just a few Silicon Valley technology companies but everyone on the net. This is why I so appreciate voices like Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, now head of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, who often meets polemical presumptions about the net — for example, that we are supposedly all hermetically sealed in filter bubbles — with demands for evidence as well as research that dares contradict the pessimistic assertion. This is why I plan to convene a meeting of similarly disciplined researchers to examine how bad — or good — life on the net really is and to ask what yet needs to be asked to learn more.

Dave Winer, a pioneer in helping to create so much of the web we enjoy today (podcasts, RSS, blogging…) is quite critical of the closed systems the platforms create but also was very frustrated with the New York Times story that inspired this post:

Could this be why usually advocacy-allergic news organizations are oddly taking it upon themselves to try to convince people to delete Facebook?

This is also why Dave also had a suggestion for journalists covering technology and for journalism schools:

A bunch of us journo profs jumped on his idea and I hope we all make it happen soon.

But there’s more journalists need to do. As we in news and media attack the platforms and their every misstep — and there are many — we need to turn the mirror on ourselvesIt was news media that polarized the nation into camps of red v. blue, white v. black, 1 percent v. 99 percent long before Facebook was born. It was our business model in media that favored confrontation over resolution. It was our business model in advertising that valued volume, attention, page views, and eyeballs — the business model that then corrupted the internet. It was our failure to inform the public that enabled people to vote against their self-interest for Trump or Brexit. We bear much responsibility for the horrid mess we are in today.

So as we demand transparency of Facebook I ask that we demand it of ourselvesAs we expect ethical self-examination in Silicon Valley, we should do likewise in journalism. As we criticize the skewed priorities and moral hazards of technology’s business model, let us also recognize the pitfalls of our own — and that includes not just clickbait advertising but also paywalls and patronage (which will redline journalism for the privileged). Let us also be honest with ourselves about why trust in journalism is at historic lows and why people chose to leave the destinations we built for them, instead preferring to talk among themselves on social media. Let he who should live in a glass house — and expects everyone else to live in glass houses — think before throwing stones.

I’m neither defending nor condemning Facebook and the other platforms. My eyes are wide open about their faults — and also ours. They and the internet they are helping to build are our new reality and it is our mutual responsibility to build a better net and a better future together. These are difficult, nuanced problems and opportunities.

There is no Trump without Murdoch

In the video above you will see New York Mayor Bill de Blasio trying to school CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter in the most important and most undercovered story in media today, a story that’s right under his nose: the ruinous impact of Fox News and Rupert Murdoch on American democracy. You’ll then see Stelter dismiss the critique in a fit of misplaced journalistic both-sideism.

Without Murdoch — without Fox News nationally and the New York Post locally — “we would be a more unified country,” de Blasio tells Stelter. “There would be less overt hate. There would be less appeal to racial division…. They put race front and center and they try to stir the most negative impulses in this country. There is no Donald Trump without News Corp.”

Stelter: “You’d rather not have Fox News or the New York Post exist?”

de Blasio: “I’m saying because they exist we’ve been changed for the worse.”

Stelter: “But isn’t that like saying they’re fake news or an enemy of the people?”

Jarvis: Sigh. No. He is criticizing Murdoch particularly. He’s not criticizing all of media. He’s not trying to send the public into battle against them. He’s not trying to kill them. He’s saying News Corp does a bad job. He’s saying they harm the nation. He’s right. Listen to him.

Stelter a little later: “Politicians make lousy media critics. Why do you feel it’s your role to be calling out a newspaper?”

de Blasio: “Because I think it’s not happening enough…. When it comes to News Corp., they have a political mission and we have to be able to talk about it.”

Stelter: “But singling out News Corp., it’s like Trump singling out CNN. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Jarvis: Scream. No, News Corp. is singular. That is the point de Blasio is trying to make as he compares them to CNN, the other networks, The New York Times, and The Washington Post: “One of these things is not like the others.” There is nothing like News Corp. in this country or in recent history. We’re not talking about that and we should be. When I say “we” I don’t just mean the nation, I specifically mean us in journalism and media and I very much mean media reporters and critics — that is de Blasio’s further critique. This is not a matter of balance, of symmetry, of two wrongs. The behavior of Fox News and of the right is asymmetrical. That is the key lesson of the election of 2016. If we do not start there, we are nowhere.

Now I’ll grant a few caveats: The rest of media are liberal and don’t admit it and that’s much of the reason they’re not trusted by half the nation. de Blasio also brings baggage when it comes to criticizing local media that criticize him. Because I teach at the City University of New York, I suppose I’m employee of the mayor’s. And I’ve been a fan of Stelter’s since he was in college. But I think Stelter is wrong to dismiss de Blasio’s critique because de Blasio is a politician, not a media critic. Indeed, we in media need to listen to voices other than our own.

de Blasio also brings caveats of his own. He supports the First Amendment. He supports free speech. He supports the press. He likes apple pie. (I’m guessing.) But that’s not good enough for Stelter, who accuses de Blasio of criticizing News Corp. because he wants to run for president. That is reportorial cynicism in action: ascribing cynicism to the motive of anyone you interview so you can seem to be tough on them rather than dealing with their critique and message at face value.

I imagine Stelter is frightened of criticizing Fox News directly because it is (a) a competitor and (b) conservative and we know that shit storm will rain from the right. So be it.

I will not mince words: Rupert Murdoch has single-handedly brought American democracy to ruin. Cable news — especially CNN — made its business on conflict and the rest of media built theirs on clickbait but only Fox News is built to — in de Blasio’s words — “sensationalize, racialize, and divide.” Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. are specifically to blame. How can any civilized soul, let alone a media correspondent, not have heard Laura Ingraham’s bilious racist rant last week and then demanded in all caps and bold: HOW THE FUCK IS THIS ON TELEVISION? WHO ALLOWS THIS? Murdoch does.

Media are fretting and kvetching about Twitter and Facebook enabling a few — yes, a few — crackpots to speak but it’s Fox News that has the bigger megaphone. It’s Murdoch that empowers Trump. It’s Fox News that instructs him on what to do, as we can see on Twitter every morning. Murdoch has far more impact than Infowars or any random asshole in your Twitter feed. de Blasio could not be more right: Rupert Murdoch made Donald Trump. He made it acceptable for the racism we saw in Washington this weekend to come out into the light. This is a damned big media story that media are not covering. So what if it takes a politician to bring attention to it? Credit Stelter for inviting de Blasio on after he gave a preview of his perspective to The Guardian. But arguing with him does not necessarily journalism make. Journalism is also listening, probing, exploring, understanding.

I go into class this week urging students to become media critics, to question what they see in journalism and why it is done that way. To prepare, I’m rereading The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. In it, they quote Murdoch when he won TV rights in Singapore:

Singapore is not liberal, but it’s clean and free of drug addicts. Not so long ago it was an impoverished, exploited colony with famines, diseases and other problems. Now people find themselves in three-room apartments with jobs and clean sheets. Material incentives create business and the free market economy. If politicians try it the other way around with democracy first, the Russian model is the result. Ninety percent of the Chinese are interested more in a better material life than in the right to vote.

“These words by a modern publisher advocating capitalism without democracy have no meaningful precedent in American journalism history,” Kovach said in a speech. He is talking about the man who is influencing at least a third of America. News Corp. is singular. That is why I have been arguing since before the election that the nation must invest in responsible, fact-based, journalistic media to compete with Fox News and provide an alternative. Until then, be worried. Be very worried. For as de Blasio warns, the local version of Fox News, Sinclair, came very near to taking over and brainwashing more local TV markets in the nation. This is not going to go away of its own accord, as if the nation one day wakes up from this nightmare, hits itself upside the head, and asks: “What were we thinking?” This is going to go away only through exposing what is happening. You’d think journalists would be the first to understand that.

Congratulations, America. Victory against Infowars!

 

You did it, O, you denizens of social media, you sharers of cats, you time-wasters, you. With every appalled tweet and retweet and angry emoji on Facebook, you vanquished the foe, Infowars. You got it banished from Facebook, Apple, YouTube, and Spotify. Congratulations.

I have no inside information to know what made the platforms finally come to their senses. But I will bet that it was the cover provided by the public on social media that gave them the courage to do the right thing.

Consider what Sleeping Giants and Shannon Coulter’s #GrabYourWallet did to get thousands of advertisers to drop Breitbart. After Kellogg dropped Breitbart back in 2016, right-wingers tried to declare a cereal boycott. It fizzled like stale Rice Crispies. Then the social pressure started on every advertiser that appeared on Breitbart and by the hundreds they flew away. I spoke with advertisers who did not resent Sleeping Giants for this. No, they were grateful for the cover.

Meanwhile, #GrabYourWallet also put pressure on retailers to stop carrying the merchandise of the enabler-in-chief and éminence greed, Ivanka Trump, and she killed her company. Last week, many of us brought a shitstorm down on the Newseum for selling fake news T-shirts and they relented. Many of us keep screaming about cable news shows inviting on Trump’s liars and at least a few listened as Morning Joe stopped inviting Kellyanne Conway and Joy Reid, Nicolle Wallace, and Rachel Maddow stopped giving free airtime unencumbered with context to Trump rallies, press briefings, and tweets.

So that is your job, America: Keep demanding the best of platforms when it comes to distributing extremist bile. Demand the best of brands, ad networks, ad agencies, and retailers when it comes to supporting their shit. And demand the best of media — I’m looking at you, cable news — when it comes to inviting pathological liars and extremist nut jobs on your air to amplify their hate and disinformation.

Now it would be nice if the companies that run the internet had long since shown the decency, good sense, and courage to do this on their own. But it seems they feared blowback from the other side, the indecent side, the allies of Infowars and you-know-who. Well, we showed them who is more powerful.

Now I know there’s a risk here. A tool is a tool and bad guys can use them just as well as good guys. Indeed, it was the far right that first went after Facebook with accusations that it was disadvantaging conservative news in its (now gone, thank you) Trending feature. Facebook caved and then cowered — until now. I don’t want to see mobs going after voices because of disagreement. But that’s not what happened here. Citizens went after companies to uphold basic standards of decency. Big difference.

 

My message here is simple: Keep it up, social media. Keep it up, America. Demand the best of ourselves, our technology companies and media companies and their advertisers. Then come November, demand the best of the women and men who represent you in government.

What you’re seeing is democracy and civilization in action — and civilization is winning. At last.

 

Gutenberg in Mainz

Here is the English version of an essay I wrote for the Allgemeine Zeitung of Mainz — the birthplace of Gutenberg and of his invention. I’m honored that it was translated into German by the leading expert in Gutenberg, Prof. Stephan Füssel of Mainz University, who just produced an amazing fascimile of and commentary on the Gutenberg Bible

It is fitting that we pay tribute to Johannes Gutenberg now, as his grand invention reaches its twilight. The lovely geometry of type and the grammar of text have been overtaken by the binary aesthetics of data and dots. Today, our vulgate is visual, our vernacular video. Come the 600th anniversary of movable type, it is unlikely that words will any longer be impressed on paper mechanically, now that they can be sprayed, transmitted, copied, and animated digitally.

But let us not mourn print’s passing. Let us first celebrate the example of innovation Gutenberg set. He was, perhaps, our first technology entrepreneur; Mainz was his Silicon Valley. He had to grapple with challenges similar to any startup’s today. Fundamental to the business he began — as in today’s economy — was the necessity of scale, of manufacturing fonts in large numbers so that books could in turn be manufactured with then-unimaginable speed and efficiency. He tamed many technologies: mechanics to build the ingenious, hand-held mold used to make letters with great precision; metallurgy to produce a lead amalgam that would cool quickly but withstand many impressions; chemistry to formulate the ink whose midnight blackness in his Bibles still has not faded over centuries. He designed an industrial process with division of labor. And he had to innovate new business models based on using risk capital before revenue would flow (which is how he lost much of his business to his financier, Johann Fust).

The epochal impact of Gutenberg’s work will be measured for still another millenium. “Print technology created the public,” said Marshall McLuhan. “Invent the printing press and democracy is inevitable,” Thomas Carlyle is often quoted as saying. The Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, even the Industrial Revolution — could any of these fires have been lit without printing’s spark? I am not arguing for technological determinism — that printing caused these disruptions with certain outcome — but instead that printing made them more possible. The acts were still human; the tools Gutenberg’s.

At the dawn of the net age, we still see the future in the analog of the past, in Gutenberg’s terms. Two Danish professors, Tom Pettitt and Lars Ole Sauerberg, argue that Gutenberg’s centuries were an exception in human history — the Gutenberg parenthesis, they call it. The book — a container — made us see in the world as packages with boundaries, with a beginning and an end. Says McLuhan: “The line, the continuum — this sentence is a prime example — became the organizing principle of life.” Thus we came to call literature and journalism “content” to fill containers: books and later newspapers. Books standardized our languages and helped define us as distinct peoples and nations with boundaries of their own. With the copyright law that followed Gutenberg by a century, books and that which filled them could be bought and sold as property. With the addition of steam power to the press, we came to measure mankind by volume: mass media, mass marketing, mass culture, mass man. Books — more abundant than ever but still a scarcity — supported the elitism of the author, the academic, the expert, and eventually the celebrity.

And now we have the internet. Invent it and what is possible? It is too soon to know. Today, we are only 24 years from the introduction of the commercial web in 1994. Reckoning by Gutenberg time, that puts us at about the year 1474. Consider that Martin Luther was not born until 1483. What if our Luther — the visionary who will fully understand and exploit the greater potential of the internet — is not yet born?

In the internet, we have a world in which every person can be connected to every other person and to any fact instantly. We have the opportunity to collect and build upon information as never before; now our machines can manufacture not just books but intelligence itself. Because we now communicate with images on Instagram, video on YouTube, and symbols as emoji, the definition of literacy has opened up so everyone is empowered to speak, be heard, and create a public. What becomes then of our economy of content, our notion of nations, our ideas of education, our standards of culture, our laws governing ownership of content or data, and our hierarchy of elites vs. masses? Who knows?

I would like to think that we can return to the other side of Gutenberg’s parenthesis and learn once again how to hold conversations as the threads that weave a society. I would like to see us move from a society built on transactions to one built once again on interactions with ideas and facts, emotions and empathy, and each other. Can the net help us gather into communities more easily and then to build bridges among them? Can it help offer the power of education and creativity to many more people in the world? Can the internet help us recognize our connected humanity again?

Today — especially in the narrative of media — it may feel like the opposite is occuring, as if we live in an age of cold, impersonal technology that is challenging our institutions, threatening our jobs, grabbing our data, spreading lies, amplifying hate. But the machines aren’t doing all that. We are. Or rather, some small number of people — trolls, thieves, demagogues, racists — have learned how to exploit weaknesses in both technology and society before the rest of us have a chance to plug the leaks in our morality.

What I fear most is fear itself. I worry that society is entering into a full-blown moral panic over technology and that — especially in Germany and Europe — laws will be enacted to limit not only the risks but also the opportunities the internet brings. Please remember that when Gutenberg invented his press, leaders of church and state alike feared it — not without reason — and tried to license and limit its use. “To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books?” Erasmus complained. “The very multitude of them is hurtful to scholarship, because it creates a glut and even in good things satiety is most harmful.” After the English Civil War, writer Richard Atkyns worried that printers had “filled the Kingdom with so many Books, and the Brains of the People with so many contrary Opinions, that these Paper-pellets become as dangerous as Bullets.” Eventually, though, society and its institutions learned how to live with and by the book. We can and should do the same with the net. To do that, we will need to:

  • Study and learn from prior disruptions in society — starting with Gutenberg’s own — to give us perspective and inform our decisions today.
  • Rely on evidence of actual harm before assuming the worst and acting on that fear to legislate and regulate. I am not convinced that the internet is addicting us or killing privacy or even that the fake news on it can sway elections. Nonetheless, we certainly must become smarter about recognizing and counteracting efforts to manipulate politics, markets, and lives with technology.
  • Negotiate new norms of behavior. We have decided it would be rude to take a phone with a camera into a locker room or sauna. We are close to deciding when it is OK to pick up a phone to check messages and when it is not. A far more difficult question is how we negotiate the the balance between free speech and threatening, hateful, manipulative, or false speech.
  • Most of all — as difficult as it might seem in this age of AfD, Trump, and Brexit — we need to regain faith in the sense and civility of our fellow man and woman. Technology alone does not corrupt the human brain and soul. Despite fears that it would, the book did not ruin civilization. The internet won’t either. We’re too smart for that.
In the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. Photo by Stefan Sämmer for the Allgemeine Zeitung

Finding the line

In his interview with Kara Swisher, Mark Zuckerberg at last drew a line around what is not acceptable on Facebook.* I think he drew the line in the wrong place. So do many commentators.

So where do you think the line should be drawn? Where do I? If we cannot agree on where it should be, can we expect Facebook to determine this on its own and in every one of millions — perhaps billions — of questions it faces in its platform for human behavior?

Here I will try to put this discussion in the context of Facebook’s role in the world versus the role it has perceived for itself. More to the point, I will explore some of the standards that could be used to set the line: harm, threat, conspiracy, incivility, bigotry, hate, manipulation. Warning: I will fail. But especially because I raised money from Facebook for my school (disclosures below*), I need to address these questions myself.

Let us start with Zuckerberg’s pronouncements. With Swisher, he seemed to defend Holocaust denial as free speech. He said:

I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong…. It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent.

That could not be more wrong, for denying something that is so overwhelmingly documented and universally accepted as true can only be to intentionally mislead. In a week marked by people walking back things they’d said, Zuckerberg emailed Swisher to walk this back:

I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that. Our goal with fake news is not to prevent anyone from saying something untrue — but to stop fake news and misinformation spreading across our services. If something is spreading and is rated false by fact checkers, it would lose the vast majority of its distribution in News Feed. And of course if a post crossed line into advocating for violence or hate against a particular group, it would be removed. These issues are very challenging but I believe that often the best way to fight offensive bad speech is with good speech.

As an example of what does cross the line, Zuckerberg discussed Myanmar and said Facebook would take down content that incited imminent violence or physical harm against people there.

That’s his line.

He also said he would not take down Infowars — but instead promote it less — because it did not cross that line. Infowars was the topic of a heated discussion between Facebook and journalists days before when the new head of News Feed, John Hegeman, said Facebook would not take down Infowars because Facebook does not “take down false news…. I guess just for being false that doesn’t violate the community standards.”

Right reasoning, perhaps, but wrong decision. I do not think we should expect Facebook to take down everything or anything that is false. For the 1000th time, can we agree that no one — least of all Facebook — wants them to be the arbiters of truth in society?

But I do think Facebook should take down Infowars. For me, that is an easy decision to make anecdotally as Infowars is so notoriously putrid. But as I said in a Twitter discussion on the topic the other day, the harder question is: What is the ongoing and enforceable standard that justifies that decision and that can be applied elsewhere at scale? Where’s the line?

In a lengthy discussion of all this on the latest This Week in Google, host Leo Laporte shifted the line, I think, to a better place: harm. Infowars may not harm bodies and take lives as disinformation, propaganda, hate speech, and incitement do in Myanmar, but with his despicable conspiracy theories and rabid lies Alex Jones certainly causes harm — to the families of Sandy Hook, to democracy, to decency.

I am not arguing that Facebook should take Infowars down as a matter of law or leave it up as a matter of free speech. I am arguing that taking down Infowars is an act of enlightened self-interest for Facebook: the service (being yelled at by an insane hate-monger is what I’d call a bad user experience), the brand (does Facebook really want to enable and be associated with such as this?), and the company (if Facebook loses users and advertisers because of this kind of crap, its bottom line and equity suffer).

I would also say this to Zuckerberg: Facebook is not the internet and should not want to be (though it is often accused of exactly that ambition, especially in developing markets). In this context, what I mean is that free speech is not Facebook’s burden. It’s not as if Alex Jones has no place else to nest with his cockroaches. That is the internet and it is uncontrollable. Facebook is controllable, by you, Mark. People are begging you to control it. That responsibility — and right — are yours. You need to decide  not whether speech is acceptable (of course, it is) but whether Infowars is (I say it is not).

That is far from a universally held opinion; many do not trust Facebook to make decisions and in any case do not believe it should. Back in the day, I might have agreed, being a dogmatist on the side of openness and free speech. But the platforms — and I — have had to learn that pure openness inevitably breeds manipulation of economic, psychological, and political origins. I’ve come to see that my friend Dov Seidman, founder of LRN and the How Institute, is right when he says that neutrality is not an option.

I should add that, no, I do not believe that if Zuckerberg and company choose what is and is not appropriate for their distribution, promotion, and monetization then that makes it a media company. Media people tend to look at the world, Godlike, in their own image and think anyone who does anything they ever did is media. No. Seeing Facebook in the analog of the past is what is getting us into this mess, for it blinds us to how the internet and Facebook are new and different and require a new perspective and new solutions. Facebook is a company not built around content or information but instead people. You can’t expect Facebook to be the Columbus Dispatch: neatly and cleanly packaged and produced. Facebook reflects life’s messes.

One could say that is a reason to leave Infowars up: it reflects society’s mess. Except Infowars is made to manipulate Facebook and YouTube and their algorithms — as well as every media outlet and their editors and every politician. It screams for attention and gets it. We are its chumps. We do not have to be. We can urge Facebook and YouTube to take it down, because it harms, and they are free to act.

I recognize the political hazards, of course. You have a member of Congress, allegedly Republican, wanting to interfere in the market and declare the platforms public utilities because his favored right-wing fake-news factory doesn’t get enough traffic online! This isn’t easy. I get that. Doing the right thing oftentimes is not.

So now we return to the hard question that remains: How to define harm in a way in which Myanmar incitement and Infowars conspiracy theories end up on one side of the line and mere controversy on the other? I wish I had a neat formula. I don’t. That is why the platforms — Facebook, Google, Twitter, all of them — avoid this decision, because they can’t turn it into a rule set, a formula, an algorithm. On Twitter just now, legendary VC Vinod Khosla — responding, it so happens, to a Swisher tweet (she is everywhere) — asked, “Is there a mathematical optimization for societal good?”

No. Humanity doesn’t scale. Civility isn’t a formula. Decency isn’t an algorithm. I’m afraid my first useful suggestion to Facebook is not formulaic but procedural, not technological but human, not cheap but very expensive. Facebook needs humans making human judgments. Facebook’s community standards clearly are not working as they allow all kinds of horrid behavior in, behavior any decent, mature, responsible human being would recognize as unacceptable in civil company. Facebook probably needs a very large customer service department and a means to communicate with them. (Want to ask someone with experience in this field, I’d suggest asking Craig Newmark,* whose job was customer service.) To understand the need, see Casey Newton’s stories here about people who have tried to reach Facebook to alert them to the harm they are experiencing. Yes, I understand that this is a problem of scale. At Facebook’s F8, Zuckerberg said the company is killing a million fake accounts a day. The bad guys are aggressive. So must Facebook be. But I still don’t have a clear standard — a line — they can point to.

If reporting harm is difficult to manage then does any other standard make it easier for Facebook to make its own judgments? As I said above, I don’t think truth is the test. Witness the pile of new books on my desk, each trying to figure out what truth is: The Death of Truth, Orwell on Truth, A Short History of Truth, Truth Matters, Truth, and Post-Truth (three of those). Truth is hard.

The flip-side of truth is conspiracy. This is Infowars’ specialty. Is it possible to judge conspiracy theories without also judging truth? I’m not sure. It could be possible to develop catalogs of harmful conspiracy theories: anti-vaccination does harm people; 9/11 conspirators do harm education and society. Who makes that catalog in each nation and society? Data & Society* is doing a good job of ferretting out such manipulation of truth online in the U.S. and the European Union is doing well against Russia in Europe. It might be possible. It starts by reversing Zuckerberg’s view that denialist conspiracy theories do not intend to misinform. They most certainly do.

How about incivility as a standard? Twitter has said it will pay more attention to its impact on the health of the public conversation. Facebook has said its aim now is to encourage “meaningful interactions between people.” I worry that the term “incivility” (like “fake news”) has been coopted by the Orwellian uncivil among us to cut off criticism of them. When I said that to authorYascha Mounk as we began his podcast, he urged me to hold onto the term, advising that it is possible to be civil while also meeting one’s obligation to call out evil. So civility matters; it is a precondition to becoming informed and to holding a productive conversation in society. But civility is too low a bar for this discussion. If the uncivil were banned, I’m afraid that many of us — including me sometimes, I’m sorry to say — would be doomed.

Then how about bigotry? Hate speech is forbidden in Facebook’s community standards. I believe that Infowars and its confederates engage in it. But they’re still on Facebook. So something’s not calibrated correctly here. In Germany, Facebook now has to enforce a ban on hate speech under the NetzDG law. Because of this — and laws in other countries — Facebook is hiring 20,000 crap detectors to get rid of hate speech, among other things. That might sound like what I’m asking for above: people with judgment and authority. But the law requires these people to act within 24 hours and so there’s no time for consideration. Because the fines are considerable — $60 million for a failure — the unintended consequence of legally required zealousness is that satire and legitimate speech are imperiled; caution wins every time. This is why I would prefer Facebook taking responsibility in its own self-interest over legislation.

That leaves me with manipulation. This is the criteria that I think is most comfortable for the platforms as they already make this judgment at scale when it comes to economically motivated bad guys: spammers and fraudsters. They decide what is made just to game them. Can they do the same with psychologically and politically motivated manipulators?

So I have failed. I, like many, disagree with where Zuckerberg drew the line. I want a test that Infowars will fail. But until we can formulate a rule set that does that, I fear we will be stuck with Alex Jones and I hate that.

I am not letting Zuckerberg or Facebook off the hook. I believe they must set standards for what is and what is not acceptable on their platform (ditto for Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snap, and other platforms that deal in the messiness that is us). They need to stand by their decisions. They need to invest in systems and people to reliably enforce those standards.

But we’re still only at the first stage: Where’s the line?

* Disclosures: I raised funds from Facebook as well as the Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation, and others to start the News Integrity Initiative at CUNY. We are independent of Facebook. I personally receive no funds from any platform.
Craig Newmark Philanthropies recently gave a large endowment to the school where I work and it is being rechristened the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
Data & Society is a grantee of the News Integrity Initiative