January 11, 2021

Fake Neutralityhave it your way ‘til they can afford to have it theirs

Depending on who you ask, the top American news story of the week is either the mob that broke into the Capitol or the fact that Twitter, Facebook, and a growing list of other online platforms banned or suspended the president of the United States. When I try to be good, my least favorite is the Capitol, since people died, and died of political violence. When I’m honest, it’s the platforms, since they inhabit the field of my work.

I am seeing furious chatter about “antitrust”, “censorship”, and “Section 230” again. Whenever screeching partisans start citing section numbers, I know I am in for a headache.

As usual, the vast majority of people motivated to express themselves on industry regulation clearly haven’t done their homework. In their defense, reading Section 230 itself—all twenty six words, in the most relevant part—doesn’t actually tell them much. You can’t make sense of it out of context, legal and historical, however much proponents like to extol its brevity as if fewer words denoted deep, inviolate truth. Folks might be expected to scratch deeper, to look into the essential context, before slathering the Web with their takeaways. But not if we face how people usually come about their opinions.

A vanishing few of those sounding off do know what they’re talking about. They’ve done the homework, participated in writing some of it, become “the experts”. But most of those also practice law, lobbying, or both, and align themselves, by ideology or livelihood, to one hard line or another. Depending on who you read, the legal analysis mostly doesn’t change, but all the opinions slipped in beside about who the law benefits, or what would happen were it amended or repealed, parrot high- and low-ball negotiating anchors.

Platforms will be less likely to moderate … or moreso. Competition against incumbents will improve … or stop altogether. The Internet will flourish … or cease to exist as we know it. Each side scarcely mentions the other, its credentials, or, least of all, the apostates who’ve changed sides over time. It’s far more fun to work the seldom appreciated difference between legal expert and professional hired gun, for points on your side.

If Trump supporters, Republicans more generally, or vaguely defined right-leaning partisans more broadly get their way, I suspect we will see a polarization of social media, just as we’ve seen a polarization of other media. Gaining critical mass, a new, red-flavored upstart could break away, as Fox News did on television. Whatever facts indicate persecution it will gladly take. The rest it will provide on its own. In time, the “mainstream” platforms will come to feel the burn of new competition, and to covet the ad bucks it reaps. They will bend themselves into a mirror image, imitating and compensating for the schismatics, in part by their own policy, in part by self-selection of eyeballs to the other side.

The bureaucratic slog, self-preservation, and profit maximization that partisans mistake for political bias now will become bias in time, or functionally indistinguishable from it. The veneer of “objectivity”, “neutrality”, “openness”, or whatever we call the opposite of overtly playing favorites, will fall off, earning suspicion. The very notion of it will come to attract scorn. Blue and Red options will greet us everywhere we turn, with scarcely a tinge of purple in sight. Only the dim grey of the better technical and academic press will occupy middle ground. Such is life in the demes.

When everybody can read, watch, chat, and strut their stuff their own way, apparently this is what we get. There’s no more sharing one Time magazine, one radio, or one rabbit-ear television for the average household entire. The economic roots for broad-tent media have washed away in the mighty, unpent stream of consumer electronics and Internet access. The most popular media have been “democratized”, in the emaciated, modern sense of “made cheap”. It’s progress, but maybe not the right kind, to say nothing of all the kinds.

Especially for those of us within the industry itself, it’s worth revisiting why we thought ourselves immune to these forces in the first place. It’s worth revisiting why so much of the consuming public followed us there, engendering the expectations disappointing them now.

The public no longer expects ad-supported television, newspapers, magazines, blogs, or even the average loudmouthed individual, to maintain a dispassionate air of stern objectivity. Why do they expect any different from social media?

Ad-supported television, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and loudmouths don’t expect special laws or nod-along consensus that they stand above party, interest, and fray. Why do ad companies that happen to host social networks?

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

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