January 12, 2021

We Are All Internet Realists Nowweb exceptionalism swings both ways

Thanks in part to a rousing ’90s libertarian hero-origin story, the Web-tech industry has long enjoyed special regard, and even special laws. Such favor coddled, but did not require, benign indifference to what gets said on one’s servers.

As Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon, and others show this week, those protections were never requirements. Private firms can and do withhold their online services, and neither political affiliation nor political relevance confer special protection. So those feeling the stick today are frantically rummaging for other weapons, from rusty antitrust laws to shiny new Section 230 changes, to avenge their expectations. They bought the Valley’s line, and now they want a refund.

Join the club.

At the same time, it’s hard not to ask: Why aren’t we seeing similar stones hurled at other media? From the anarchist print collective downtown to NPR, MSNBC, the New York Times, Comcast, and TimeWarner, there are plenty of places right-wing views, content, and services aren’t considered welcome. But as far as I can tell, we aren’t hearing similar clamor for common-carrier requirements, political neutrality, or injunctions to break those firms up. They’re in the same business of distributing content, playing favorites, and selling ads. They’ve been combining, acquiring, growing enormous, and throwing political weight around for decades. So have their Republican-aligned counterpart-competitors.

Simple: We’ve already been through this with other media. Nobody expects them to accept all views or strike a balance. We aren’t shocked or disappointed when they don’t.

No world views came crashing down when Bill O’Reilly talked over guests, cut mics, or banished newsworthy personalities, even though many of us didn’t like it. Nobody called to break up MSNBC when they started running Rachel Maddow, even though many Americans despise her, too. Nobody expects to see multiple sides of a salient issue calmly and competently represented via one channel anymore. That exercise is left to those with the time and the stomach to read or watch each side’s coverage, and try to pan it out.

In short, the era of anodyne mass-market centrism is gone, at least in print, radio, television, and film. The Fairness Doctrine is dead, legally and spiritually. So are the practical constraints—each outlet needs its own chunk of broadcast spectrum—that capped how many outlets there could be, and forced a single conversation on shared editorial standards for common consumption.

Media platforms that once chose their stories, reporters, letters to editors, chat show hosts, and debate show guests under the guise of “objectivity”—discrimination against anything beyond a narrowly defined band of moderation—now sort themselves toward one party line or the other, and openly. We’ve seen massive shifts in the last ten years, with cable news and even the original Big Three heading for their corners. When it was just a few major outlets, they strained to seem “objective”. When Hearst, Richards, or Murdoch came around, birthing outlets like Fox, the old guard was rendered boring. Now, at some basic level, all the major outlets pick a team and root more than they explain. “Objective” is off the menu, like a dainty salad at a boisterous pub. Few of us ordered it, even if we thought if was good for us.

Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon Web Services, and likely more companies are booting extreme right-wing voices, and services catering to them, off their platforms. Refreshingly, those facts aren’t actually in dispute. Despite much woe about each side having its own reality, we disagree on why companies are doing these things, not on what they are doing.

From the red point of view, it’s rank partisan discrimination. Silicon Valley is blue. We are red. When they do us ill, it’s because we’re red. Tech is one big MSNBC, and they’re cutting off our mic, running sucker-punch crawls when and where we speak, and favoring their pick for president over ours.

From the blue point of view, it’s about extremism and illegality, not politics. Parler wasn’t Republican so much as Trumpist, and this week Trumpism means threatening to lynch elected officials, trying to overturn a certified election, and coordinating an assault on the Capitol. Tech is one big university campus, and while debate continues, gangs and illiberal terrorist groups aren’t allowed.

From the money-is-green point of view, it’s all business. Having multifunctional teams on call to deal with whatever Trump or his people say next, whenever they say it, is a big, expensive distraction from the bottom line. It injects politics into the heart of operations, straight up to the executive level. And that’s just before the fact. After the fact, hosting this content means a bunch of burdensome law enforcement requests, lawsuits, and user complaints, especially after last week. Meanwhile, marketing people can’t keep up with all the press linking the firm to controversy. These people are more trouble than they’re worth. They’re making our ad buyers nervous. Cut them loose.

Perhaps the majority of Americans might like online platforms that welcome partisan voices, from right to left, but exclude extremists from the fringe of each side. Perhaps advertisers would prefer to buy ads on such sites, too. But if experience of other media is any indication, that is not the way market forces will go.

It’s a lot easier to say how the Web is different than older media than it is to say how those differences matter when it comes to business, politics, and editorial policy. The story we used to tell ourselves to bridge that gap—that the Internet is inherently “free”, as in “rule-free”—reads like old ad schlock from the fifties now. The loudest voices come from the fringes these days, not from a center that just wants peace, quiet, and a chance to forget about the war. We’re seeing a broader range of views in positions in mass media, on so many channels it would have boggled grandpa’s dial-tuning mind.

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

back to topedit on GitHubrevision history