It Was the Gatekeepers Who Failed

The internet doesn’t actually offer an unconstrained marketplace of ideas.

John Stillwell / Reuters

The consistently thought-provoking Damon Linker posits in his latest column that Western culture’s dominant view of technology rests on a lie: “the notion that the world would be a better place without gatekeepers.”

Conventional wisdom holds that “if only the most powerful information-dissemination technologies ever devised were left open to all—unregulated, uncontrolled, ungoverned by authorities who make decisions about what's acceptable and what isn't—the world would be a much more free and thriving place, the thinking goes,” he writes. “But for this to be true, human beings (individually but perhaps especially collectively) would need to be far more capable of exercising wise judgment.”

In fact, he argues, we need gatekeepers:

That can be difficult for individualistic, egalitarian citizens of liberal democracies to accept. We have long been taught to revere the marketplace of ideas. Let a million ideas bloom, and through competition with each other, the best will thrive and spread while the worst die out under scrutiny. But this is not what happens in our shared digital lives.

As examples, he cites Alex Jones of Infowars and Donald Trump:

Trump's political career was launched by a racist conspiracy theory, his campaign fueled in part by support from InfoWars, his victory partly a function of the dissemination of disinformation by foreign powers out to subvert American liberal democracy. This is what happens when the dream of a marketplace of ideas has been supplanted by the nightmarish reality of a world in epistemological collapse.

In such a world—our world—the loudest, most viscerally satisfying "take" often gets far more traction than the smartest one, precisely because we have lost the capacity to reach any kind of consensus about what even counts as "smart." So yes, we could use a few more online gatekeepers—even if they do a merely mediocre job, and even if their judgments, at least at first, seem to lack consistency and legitimacy.

Is he right?

Gatekeepers as Linker defines them aren’t something a prudent person would completely eliminate. A society is a better place with magazines and newspapers that select for quality, YouTube rules that prohibit child pornography, and social-media platforms that ban people who threaten violence.

Still, Linker is too hard on the “marketplace of ideas” as we know it. He lays blame for its shortcomings on what he sees as its insufficient constraints, even when blame is better attributed to the decisions of gatekeepers, rather than their absence.

Consider Donald Trump. Way back in 1988, President George H.W. Bush invited him to the Republican National Convention. He was interviewed there by then-CNN host Larry King:

After Bill Clinton left office in 2000, as Hillary Clinton sought a political career in New York, both socialized repeatedly with Trump in a seemingly transactional gambit to advance all of their interests and ambitions.

Staring in 2004, the NBC television network and the producer Mark Burnett worked to make Trump a primetime reality-TV star, casting him as an accomplished real-estate mogul making decisions behind a boardroom table, using all the artifice of their industry to make him look good. The image they cultivated for Trump on that show was arguably the most powerful factor in shaping the perceptions of his supporters.

As early as President Obama’s first term, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News was boosting the racist conspiracy theory that Obama was a foreign-born usurper—and the notion that Trump, the nation’s leading Birther, was a credible candidate for president. “During one of Trump's frequent appearances on Fox & Friends, the network started teasing the idea of Trump in the Oval Office,” Media Matters noted. “While asking him for his opinions on Libya policy, on-screen text asked, ‘What Would President Trump Do?’”

In 2012, Mitt Romney added to the perception that Trump was a man to be taken seriously in business and politics by soliciting his endorsement and accepting it at a press event where he praised the businessman.

All along, Trump would always have an easy time being welcomed on television to share his uninformed opinions. Campbell Brown aptly described the role cable-news networks played during the 2016 campaign:

Trump doesn’t force the networks to show his rallies live rather than do real reporting. Nor does he force anyone to accept his phone calls rather than demand that he do a face-to-face interview that would be a greater risk for him. TV news has largely given Trump editorial control.

It is driven by a hunger for ratings—and the people who run the networks and the news channels are only too happy to make that Faustian bargain. Which is why you’ll see endless variations of this banner, one I saw all three cable networks put up in a single day: “Breaking news: Trump speaks for first time since Wisconsin loss.” In all these scenes, the TV reporter just stands there, off camera, essentially useless. The order doesn’t need to be stated. It’s understood in the newsroom: Air the Trump rallies live and uninterrupted. He may say something crazy; he often does, and it’s always great television.

Gatekeepers created President Trump. It is not clear whether he would’ve won the presidency or not in a marketplace of ideas less heavily influenced by the choices of elites at NBC, CNN, and Fox News, not to mention Breitbart and political talk-radio hosts who abuse gatekeeping on their shows to keep their audiences in information bubbles.

Now forget Trump and consider the new media landscape. Surely YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter all illustrate the awful things that some individuals will do in civic discourse when no gatekeepers intervene?

There is some truth to that. Digital communications, no matter how conceived, cannot free themselves of people behaving badly anymore than an actual public square.

Linker believes that excessive or even utopian reverence for a “marketplace of ideas” is “based on a false (or at least overly simplified) notion of human nature and society, presuming that people are roughly equal in their cognitive and emotional capacities, and that the surrounding culture will automatically inculcate norms and habits that facilitate the acquisition of knowledge and the capacity to judge wisely.”

That individuals differ in their cognitive and emotional capacities is beyond dispute, as is the need for acculturation to make civic life function smoothly. And perhaps a frictionless marketplace of ideas really would be much worse than what its advocates imagine if it ever came to pass.

Still, I’d argue that the worst aspects of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter owe more to choices made by their architects than insufficient paternalism. The platforms give the illusion of content-neutrality beyond some basic rules. Yet what they show us is not a simple stream of what is uploaded in reverse chronological order, filtered as each user prefers. Were that so, it would be easy enough to block bad actors as individuals. Instead, these advertising-driven corporations are engaged in a constant, high-stakes competition for our attention—and so they have designed platforms that manipulate what users are shown to increase “engagement,” not enjoyment or edification or empathy or civic knowledge.

On YouTube, those tweaks lead some users to ever more extreme content. On Facebook and Twitter, the results are complicated and usefully explored in a recent exchange between Ezra Klein and Jaron Lanier. They were discussing the latter’s book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media. Klein resisted his interlocutor’s thesis, arguing that social media has allowed traditionally marginalized groups “to be heard” and “to influence conversations in ways that were very difficult before,” benefiting movements like Black Lives Matter by helping them to take off.

Lanier replied:

I worked very hard to try to make the internet possible on a technical level in the ‘90s. I am still a believer that bringing people together is valuable and can create wonders. If I lost that faith I don’t know what I’d do.

So I agree with that positivity. And my sense of what’s going on now is, that positive layer does exist––but it's joined by an unnecessary, deeply unfortunate, even unsurvivable other thing: a machinery in the background that takes advantage of it and ruins it. So in the example of Black Lives Matter, I thought the Black Lives Matter movement was brilliant. I thought the framing of it was great, I thought it was remarkably generous and open considering the intensity. It was inviting, it was positive. I thought it was an amazing thing. And I think the general initial reaction to it was positive for most people, actually. And it’s absolutely true that it was accelerated by social media.

However, there’s this other behind-the-scenes machine that is working, and what that’s doing is taking all the posts and all the activities from people who like Black Lives Matter, and just as a matter of course, algorithmically testing it to see who else it might engage.

Of course, the way engagement is measured is with very rapid feedback, so the people who have the more impulsive instead of the more considered reactions tend to read more clearly to the feedback algorithms. And as it happens, the people who are irritated or disagreed with it were the most engaged. And that is what always happens.

So these people that hated Black Lives Matter were not only identified by the algorithm but introduced to each other. And their annoyance was reinforced, and reinforced, and reinforced, not out of any ideological bent on the part of a company like Facebook, but rather just through the algorithmic seeking of engagement. Then they became like a red carpet rolled out for bad actors, which in this case were Putin's psychological warfare units, who suddenly had this population to target very clearly, as well as the original Black Lives Matter people.

So it’s this behind-the-scenes behavior modification and manipulation scheme that's been glommed onto the good stuff that ruins it.

What you see as a repeated pattern are people that I find to be doing things that are very positive and attractive and worthwhile––but then their energies get inverted by this machine in the background into something that’s the opposite, something horrible and destructive of society.

In that telling, elites at Facebook and Twitter may be improving on an unconstrained marketplace of ideas when they ban someone from posting death threats or revenge porn, sure, but they’re also using their power as gatekeepers in ways that distort and degrade the marketplace of ideas.

A physical analogy to the “marketplace of ideas” that Twitter has constructed might be a farmer’s market where foot traffic is aggressively steered into booths that provide especially memorable experiences, regardless of whether that means an unusually delicious strawberry, or spinach that gives you salmonella poisoning, or a cantankerous goat that keeps head-butting you. So long as it keeps your attention!

Oh, and every so often, a stranger grabs you by the sleeve and drags you into a makeshift dunk tank while onlookers throw rotten eggs at the target. And don’t even get me started on the roving anti-Semites.

Would users be better off in a less heavy-handed marketplace of ideas where there were no gatekeepers to protect against the crooked timber of humanity, but also no brilliant Stanford grads writing code to manipulate everyone’s behavior in ways all but certain to stoke ongoing conflict?

It isn’t actually clear that the choice is so stark. Social-media sites expose nearly everyone to people behaving badly, and nearly everyone wants them to perform some sort of gatekeeping functions. But I suspect improving on the status quo isn’t so much a matter of adding more gatekeeping to the Internet as it is changing the incentives and behavior of the gatekeepers who are presently designing it.