Policing the public square

No doubt you’ve seen the news. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has gone up to Capitol Hill this week to answer questions from several different Congressional committees. They want to know what Facebook is doing about privacy breaches and interference by foreign actors.

In his prepared testimony, Zuckerberg said:

“It’s not enough to just connect people, we have to make sure those connections are positive. It’s not enough to just give people a voice, we have to make sure people aren’t using it to hurt people or spread misinformation. It’s not enough to give people control of their information, we have to make sure developers they’ve given it to are protecting it too. Across the board, we have a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure those tools are used for good.”

Zuckerberg and Besmehn

Mark Zuckerberg and assistant Andrea Besmehn arrive on Capitol Hill (photo source: NPR)

So, as NPR’s Camila Domonoske points out, Facebook now admits that it’s a content publisher, not just a technology platform on which other people create content. That’s big news.

Here’s even bigger news: Facebook pledges to “make sure people aren’t using [content] to hurt people or spread misinformation” and make sure its platform is “used for good.”

Sure, Zuckerberg is probably motivated by a desire to keep Congress from imposing new regulations on his company. Still, if Facebook is willing to make that pledge, what obligations or expectations does that place on other content publishers?

I’m honestly not sure.

I’m also not sure how Facebook and other content publishers would go about meeting those obligations. As has been thoroughly documented, the history of Facebook is one of apologizing for missteps and then not really fixing anything. Why will it be different this time?

Still, think of the implications of what Zuckerberg is saying. If we’re to take him at his word, it means that Facebook and other content publishers will assume responsibility for making sure the public square is safe and open for all.

Like I said, that’s big news.

Juxtaposed against Zuckerberg’s testimony is another quote from a divergent source: Laura Ingraham, who on Monday returned to her Fox News show to complain that “left-wing retaliatory hit squads” are trying to silence her and abridge her freedom of speech.

“Many of you have become accustomed to editing yourselves,” she said — clearly implying that her viewers are being bullied into silence.

I find the idea remarkable that people are reining in their talk, considering the sheer volume of rhetoric coming from both the right and the left. But let’s leave that aside and focus on something else: the idea that “editing” ourselves is somehow a bad thing.

I’ve been “editing myself” for my whole life. I have a different term for it: discretion. A matter of respecting other people by not trying to drown them out.

I think we all should “edit” ourselves — not out of fear but out of consideration for each other. It’s one of those things we learned in kindergarten, isn’t it?

Facebook logoSo here’s my crazy idea. If more of us are willing to “edit” ourselves — to exercise discretion and be more respectful toward each other — then maybe we won’t need to rely on content publishers like Facebook to “make sure [their] tools are used for good,” to keep public discourse from being poisoned.

I’d much rather see all of us “edit” ourselves, to take individual responsibility for what we say, than hand the job over to the content publishers. I’m certain it would work a lot better too.

Please discuss this in the Comments section. I want to know what you think.

2 thoughts on “Policing the public square

  1. Mark Baker

    ” safe and open for all” — Pick one, because it most certainly can’t be both, at least not according to what most people seem to mean when they say safe these days.

    I do find the discussion about what sort of thing Facebook is to be interesting. If it is an open platform, then anyone can post anything, and then Facebook gets hammered for not stopping them. But if Facebook does arbitrate what can and cannot be posted, then they get hammered for censoring one side or the other.

    Of course, a private company is fully entitled to control both what it publishes itself and what it allows to be published. It is only the government that can truly be said to censor. Private citizens and corporations have every right to edit themselves. But that gets very tricky when a person or company gets hauled before congress to give account of themselves. Government regulating private platforms or publishers is government censoring, even if by proxy.

    As to editing yourself. Yes, we should all edit ourselves. But there is a vast difference between editing yourself out of respect and editing yourself out of fear. In a civilized society, everyone should edit themselves out of respect, and no one should ever feel the need to edit themselves out of fear.

  2. Pingback: Your guide to defending the truth | Leading Technical Communication

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