WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 12: Members of the U.S. National Guard arrive at the U.S. Capitol … [+]
Another choice. Another crisis. Another case of social media in the crosshairs.
The 2016 US presidential election was marked by ongoing and well-documented interference by Russia on Facebook. The 2020 elections largely avoided these issues, but opened up a host of new challenges in social media as the self-widespread dissemination of misinformation and biases threatened to undermine confidence in the electoral process itself. The January 6 events at the Capitol were, in some ways, a tragic culmination of that influence.
In the past few days, some platforms have suspended or permanently banned the president, while others have been forced to shut down completely. In the meantime, concerns that networks like Twitter and Facebook were initially too casual in monitoring hateful and divisive content have been replaced with concerns that they are now too restrictive. With equally passionate views on both sides of the debate, where is the way forward?
It is very clear that social media is not going away. However, we need to find ways to help this technology serve our interests and the common good rather than undermine them. The reality is that networks are not an easy task: to moderate discussions without cooling the discourse; Enable free exchange without promoting the lie. When you add profit motives, political intrigue, and pandemics to the mix, the enormous challenge becomes apparent.
Ultimately, it is partly up to individual networks to get this right – getting a real communications revolution under control in real time – but it also goes well beyond that. Saving social media is ultimately the collective work of a society and all of its stakeholders.
It also requires something that may be sorely lacking right now: perspective.
Positioning social media in a historical context
To see social media for what it is and can be, you need to remove the blinders imposed by our particular historical moment and expand our time horizon – something that is seldom easy, especially when the current news cycle is in real time.
The simple truth is that social media is not the first communication technology to take the planet by storm and delight people with its potential uses before transforming and undermining relationships, politics, and even knowledge in ways that were never intended. Indeed, one could argue that every new medium of communication has followed precisely this path.
Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, maps these shifts back to ancient Greece. “With a new medium, it starts with euphoria and then turns into hysteria and hopefully you get some kind of balance. It happened on the radio. This happened to the television. Reading Plato was very skeptical because he was writing and no one could argue about shouting in a public place, ”he told the New York Times.
Radio, a technology close to our time but far enough away to reveal historical trendlines, provides a telling example – and one that I explore in depth in my new book, Saving Social. As the well-known story shows, the first radio transmitters and receivers were developed in 1895 by the Italian Guglielmo Marconi. By 1901, the technology could send a signal over 2,200 miles across the Atlantic.
In the United States, regulated radio was inaugurated a few decades later, and on September 19, 1921, the WBZ began broadcasting in Springfield, Massachusetts. Over the next several months, the WBZ broadcast political speeches, opera performances and even a bilingual show from Montreal.
But it wasn’t long before unexpected challenges arose. In 1924 Pentecostal evangelist and founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel Aimee Semple McPherson bought her own station, the KFSG in Los Angeles. It became a platform to promote their worldview, dividing people into “pagans” and “saved” and sowing disagreement and distrust.
Soon the air waves were clogged with righteous evangelicals and their worldly opponents. Ordinary listeners, originally enchanted by the new technology, were suddenly caught in the middle. But instead of just turning the radio on, they did something. The early power users of the radio had had enough of all the arguments and stank. And the government listened.
Three years after the premiere of McPherson’s show, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Radio Act of 1927, which governed “all forms of interstate and foreign radio transmission and communication within the United States, its territories and possessions”. The law went on to require radio stations to deliver content that was “in the public interest, convenience or need”. A regulatory agency called the Federal Radio Commission was soon established.
Radio would evolve, with new oversight efforts creating new challenges and requiring further change and compromise. But over time, radio evolved from the wild, wild west of media – a playing field where broadcasters could say or do just about anything, no matter how offensive it might be – to a well-regulated entity and social good in which we can live likely will be one form or another forever.
Understand the real “social dilemma”
So what can we learn from the turbulent beginnings of radio to apply it to our times? For a start, every technological revolution brings with it an unstoppable dynamic. The choice is not to avert or embrace innovations like social media. Instead, it is about a willingness to embark on the chaotic and sometimes daunting task of designing innovations to serve our needs rather than undermine them. And that responsibility extends beyond individual companies to include government, citizens, business and stakeholders – in short, all of us.
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, recently testified before Congress and aptly summed up the dilemma that social networks are grappling with: “We are facing something that feels impossible … We have to contribute to our health Improve public conversation while ensuring that as many people as possible can participate. ”
Despite the scale of the challenge, Dorsey offered specific suggestions for another path: doubling the requirement for algorithmic transparency so users know what is being displayed in their feeds and why; Demand for clarity regarding moderation processes and appeals so that accounts can be blocked quickly and fairly; and call for a revision of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which for so long has shielded social platforms from responsibility for what they publish. While these steps would be neither easy nor a panacea, they would represent real progress.
To be clear, I don’t want to apologize here for the many and real mistakes made on social media. However, it is impossible to deny its worth. 3.8 billion people worldwide use platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The benefits of the social media revolution have been so pervasive and profound – from connecting friends and families to democratizing the flow of information to empowering voices that couldn’t be heard, including during this year’s protests against the murder of George Floyd – that we almost take you for granted.
So how do we maintain and regain perspective? How can we maintain focus when we face the daunting task of developing and reforming a communication channel that has changed the world in just over a decade?
Patience. Perspective. And above all, pragmatism. Can we save social media? Yes absolutely. In fact, we don’t have a choice. The way forward is to come together to do the hard, step-by-step work of shaping a promising technology to meet our collective needs and realize its potential. And history has shown that we are up to the challenge.
Ryan Holmes is the chairman of Hootsuite and the author of Saving Social: The Dysfunctional Past and Bright Future of Social Media.