The ideals of the journalistic profession—no doubt flawed in practice, but nonetheless worthy—helped mitigate an earlier generation of concentration of media ownership. News divisions were by strong tradition independent of the commercial side of broadcasting and publishing, while cross-subsidized by other programming. And in the United States, they were largely independent of government, too, with exceptions flagrantly sticking out.
Facebook and Twitter for social media, and Google and Microsoft for search, must recognize a special responsibility for the parts of their services that host or inform public discourse. They should be upfront about how they promote some stories and de-emphasize others, instead of treating their ranking systems as trade secrets. We should hold them to their desire to be platforms rather than editors by insisting that they allow anyone to write and share algorithms for creating user feeds, so that they aren’t saddled with the impossible task of making a single perfect feed for everyone.
There should be a method for non-personally-identifying partial disclosure: my Twitter-mates could be assured, say, that I am, in fact, a person, and from what country I hail, even if I don’t choose to advertise my name. Bots can be allowed—but should be known for the mere silhouettes that they are.
And Facebook and Twitter should version-up the crude levers of user interaction that have created a parched, flattening, even infantilizing discourse. For example, why not have, in addition to “like,” a “Voltaire,” a button to indicate respect for a point—while disagreeing with it? Or one to indicate a desire to know if a shared item is in fact true, an invitation to librarians and others to offer more context as it becomes available, flagged later for the curious user?
Finally, it’s time for a reckoning with the bankrupt system of click-based advertising. By “bankrupt” I don’t mean that it’s bad for America or the world, though it is. Rather, by its own terms it is replete with fraud. The same bots that populate Twitter armies also inspire clicks that are meaningless—money out of the pockets of advertisers, with no human impact to show for it. There are thoughtful proposals to reseed a media landscape of genuine and diverse voices, and we would do well to experiment widely with them as the clickbait architecture collapses on its own accord.
While there is no baseline pure or neutral architecture for discourse, there are better and worse ones, and the one we have now is being exploited by those with the means and patience to game it. It’s time to reorient what we have with a focus on loyalty to users—honestly satisfying their curiosity and helping them find and engage with others in ways so that disagreement does not entail doxxing and threats, but rather reinforcement of the human aspiration to understand our world and our fellow strugglers within it.
This article is part of a collaboration with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.