The Counter To Social Media Madness

Part of the front of the insightful REVIEW in the Oct. 30-31 The Wall Street Journal.

Newspaper still can play a role in fixing social media.

It also might help them transform their own industry.

Be THE Community Forum, for starters.

In all the chaotic discourse about the future, I keep coming back to this question: Why hasn’t the newspaper industry collaborated to build its own answer to Facebook?

With Facebook facing a surplus of challenges, now would be the time to provide that answer.

Any innovation only would have to be good enough to take hold. (Fans of innovation guru Clay Christensen knows what that means.)

And, if the corporate owners don’t want to play, then independent publishers working with newspaper trade association is the route to success.

What got me worked up again was the intriguing REVIEW section in the Oct. 30-31 The Wall Street Journal, which published 11 crisp essays on “How to Fix Social Media.” I highly recommend reading all of them.

The upshot: I wouldn’t bet on the government to figure it out, though finally acknowledging with new laws these social media giants are publishers would be a welcomed correction. That would allow the courts to create worthwhile change.

Several observations from the essays are worth examining by newspaper associations, at least during their various conferences and workshops. (Relevant Note: If you think this Relevant Point is too long, just know I’ve summarized four pages of content.)

Consider these discussion starters:

*Facebook wants to be regulated. OK. When is the last time you heard a for-profit business invite regulators? “Congress could start by creating a new digital regulator,” wrote Nick Clegg, vice president for global affairs at Meta, the new parent brand for Facebook. “It could write a comprehensive federal privacy law. It could reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and require large companies like Meta to show that they comply with best practices for countering illegal content.”

*There’s little trust in Facebook self-regulating itself. “We cannot expect Facebook — or any private, corporate actor — just to do the right thing,” wrote Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, the co-founder of the Economic Security Project and a senior adviser at the Roosevelt Institute. “Creating a single company with this much concentrated power makes our systems and society more vulnerable in the long-term.”

*Some U.S. senators are ready for action. “One reason Facebook can get away with this behavior is because it knows consumers don’t have alternatives,” wrote U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. , whose comments were highlighted on the section front. She added: “To protect competition in the digital marketplace, we have to update our antitrust and competition laws and make sure the enforcement agencies have the resources to do their jobs.” All in favor…

*From the other side of the aisle comes agreement that “too much power (is) in too few hands.” Add Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri to the chorus singing Congress must update antitrust laws to stop big platforms from killing competition. He also takes aim at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that protects tech companies from owning up that they also are publishers of content. “In all other industries, the prospect of liability helps to hold the powerful responsible and makes obtaining concentrated market power more difficult, but Section 230 now is a perpetual get-out-of-jail-free card,” Hawley wrote. “….To fix social media, break up centralized authority and help regular Americans take back control over their lives.”

*There’s no shortage of skeptics. Not everyone is convinced government controls will work, especially “at a moment when government is among the least-trusted institutions in American life,” wrote David French, senior editor of the Dispatch and the author of “Divided We Fall: America’s Succession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.” He added: “It’s the task of a free people to exercise that liberty responsibly, not to beg the government to save us from ourselves.”

*”Slow It Down and Make It Smaller” was the headline on the essay by Clay Shirky, author of “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.” The vice provost for Educational Technologies at New York University wrote: “We know that scale and speed make people crazy.” Another essay urged “circuit breakers” to insist on reflection, adding a tout to the edited medium of newspapers. “Reputable newsroom don’t simply get a tip and tweet out a story,” wrote Renee DiResta, the technical research manager of the Stanford Internet Observatory. “They take the time to follow a reporting process to ensure accuracy. Added friction to social media has the potential to slow the speed of content that is manipulative and harmful, even as regulators sort out more substantive oversight.”

*Another solution: Take a page from the broadcast regulations. “These laws defined broadcasting as a privilege, not a right,” wrote Nicholas Carr, an author and visiting professor of sociology at Williams. “They required radio stations (and, later, television stations) to operate in ways that furthered not just their own private interests but also ‘the public interest, convenience, and necessary.’ Broadcasters that ignored the strictures risked losing their licenses.”

*Plenty of work remains to be done with online users, who need to step up to address the challenge that “social media is broken.” Added Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT: “But changing social media is not enough. We need to change ourselves. ….good citizenship requires practice with disagreement. We lose out when we don’t take the time to listen to each other, especially to those who are not like us. We need to learn again to tolerate difference and disagreement.” (That’s a strategic pillar of THE Community Forum.)

*Believe community newspapers can advance solutions to humble the tech giants. Clive Thompson, an author and journalist who covers science and tech, wrote the online communities that work best have a common characteristic — they’re small, which “makes all the difference.” He added: “First, these groups have a sense of cohesion. The members have joined specifically to talk to people with whom they share an enthusiasm. That creates a type of glue, a context and a mutual respect that can’t exist on a highly public site like Twitter, where anyone can crash any public conversation.” See the opening, community newspapers well-connected to their audiences.

Finally, join me in studying this graphic that accompanied the “Topple New Gods of Data” essay by Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and author of “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” (Insert applause for that title.) It confirms the Facebook risks and how video is overwhelmed by one big player. But look how few people use the echo chamber Twitter and the noise-filled Nextdoor, Reddit, TikTok, Whats App and Snapchat. The network-seekers on LinkedIn are rather limited, too. Interesting context, isn’t it?

All this gets back to where we began: Why can’t the newspaper industry build its own master platform where trusted journalism, edited responsible content, and civil discourse can offer a solution to the mess called social media?

The question is Relevant.

–Tom Silvestri, Executive Director, The Relevance Project

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