There is a meme you maybe won’t remember, from a different internet epic, that goes like this: Are bloggers journalists? It was a real question that became a joke because it’s the kind of thing someone would ask now only with a wink of nostalgia for the naiveté of an earlier time, when terms like hyperlocal and blogosphere were used in earnest.
The web itself was different then, and the way people thought about the changes it would bring were different, too. The focus was on the individual. The mantra was: Just think what you can do now. All you need is a dial-up connection! And our arrival in this shared tech utopia was, we were told, liberating beyond our wildest dreams. It would make us smarter, and faster, and freer in all the ways the old AT&T commercials had promised (“Have you ever sent someone a fax from the beach? You will!”). And it did, in so many ways. But even the curmudgeons of the old school, editors and print-media devotees who chafed at the speed of internet journalism, or thumbed their noses at those they perceived as not sufficiently ink-stained, were focused on the wrong disruptive forces in those early days.
These grumpy journalists feared misinformation, and disliked feeling replaceable, and knew they were losing a battle that mattered to them. Because it was clear to anyone then that, with the printing press no longer a prerequisite for publishing information, journalists would have to compete with individuals outside of the journalism industry—including some amateurs doing valuable fact-finding on their own time, but also plenty of people neither beholden to nor interested in the industry’s ethical standards.
But then something else happened.
A new class of media companies emerged—a group more powerful and more dangerous to truth than any army of bloggers. This new order was led by a collective of powerful individuals who quickly made a fortune, decimating the business model that journalistic institutions relied on and adopting the civic-minded language of journalism to defend the way their companies would enable the spread of lies and propaganda on a massive scale. Who could have imagined such an informational dystopia?
Only with the arrival of the smartphone and the social web did it become obvious that, for those concerned with promoting truth and protecting journalism, this was the force to reckon with—this new class of publishers who refused for so long to acknowledge what everyone could plainly see they had built: Facebook is the largest media company in the world and Mark Zuckerberg the most powerful publisher in human history. Twitter is a smaller media company, sure, but still influential in many ways, not least of all because it is known for being the publishing platform of choice among wealthy celebrities, powerful politicians, and journalists. Also: conspiracy theorists.
There was a time, in another century, when conspiracy theories spread through letters to the editors of newspapers. That is where people claimed, as I’ve previously reported, that Franklin D. Roosevelt was secretly a Communist and that scientists were controlling the weather. The lies were printed, but they were contained—or at least differentiated. Today, such fabrications spread online, uninhibited by gatekeepers of the old guard and instead enabled by publishers who don’t give a damn about the truth.
When the founders of the world’s most powerful and influential media companies can claim, straight-faced, that they are not media companies, they frequently then point out that opinions are as valuable as facts. Zuckerberg, meeting with a small group of news editors in Palo Alto last spring, said this: “I do think that in general, within a news organization, there is an opinion … I do think that a lot of what you all do, is have an opinion and have a view.” And then, describing how Facebook would let its users rank truth based on what they believe: “You should decide where you want to be.”
I remembered this exchange when Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, published a multipart explanation of his decision to protect the Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s use of Dorsey’s publishing platform. “Accounts like Jones’ can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors,” Dorsey tweeted, “so it’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions. This is what serves the public conversation best.”
To recap: What serves the public conversation best, Dorsey argues, is for one media company to reject the idea that publishers are responsible for the quality of what appears on their platforms, to ignore the larger record of information people publish—and instead to rely on other publishers to uphold standards such as seeking the truth and reporting it, holding the powerful accountable for lies and corruption, and doing so in a way that serves the public good and minimizes harm.
I do not envy publishers like Dorsey and Zuckerberg. The scale of the problem they face—and that we all face as a result—is mind-boggling. In journalism, reporters who lie are fired. But no newsroom has a structure like Facebook, with 2 billion individuals publishing stories and no real editors. On a platform where users can publish freely, and provocations and misinformation are incentivized by the very architecture of the platform, what’s a publisher to do? Perhaps a better question is: What is the publisher’s moral or ethical responsibility?
“If we succumb and simply react to outside pressure, rather than straightforward principles we enforce (and evolve) impartially regardless of political viewpoints, we become a service that’s constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction,” Dorsey tweeted.
Since when did empirical fact become a personal view?
The publishers who insist they are not publishers, and who maintain that their companies are not media companies but rather technology companies, are fond of talking about the importance of connecting people. They talk about their commitment to “the public conversation” and “community.”
Let me tell you about a community I visited, on December 15, 2012. I took the train to New Haven from New York City that morning, and hitched a ride to Newtown with an editor from the New Haven Register. The sun didn’t come out for days. The air was damp. The cold was bone-chilling. Teddy bears and crosses piled up on street corners—mementos for the 20 dead children and six women who loved and cared for them, all gunned down in their school the day before. Satellite vans surrounded the local churches and diners. One morning, a line of heavy-duty camera tripods stretched across an entire block of sidewalk, each camera’s eye trained on the church where a little girl’s body was put inside a bubble-gum pink coffin. The presidential motorcade arrived and then left. I watched men sob openly in the streets, and reporters wait for private moments to weep into their notebooks. I talked with the people of a little town still in shock. This is what happened. And any media executive who can’t see the harm in protecting the publishing power of a person who denies what’s real with such utter cruelty and disregard for the pain of his fellow citizens should be asked to explain himself. And then to explain again. What do you really believe in?