Playing God, even online, is not as easy as it looks. Facebook, Twitter and the other technology firms in control of the social-media universe are learning that with nearly limitless power comes the responsibility to administer it fairly. So far social media has failed. Bias, mostly but not all left-leaning, has obstructed the free flow of dialogue. Unless the tech giants figure out how to remedy their tendency to mediate political discourse by leaning left, the bloom will fade from the unmatched flower of human connectivity, and bad things will follow.
In his 2003 fantasy film “Bruce Almighty,” funny man Jim Carrey plays a TV reporter who, following several personal misfortunes, has the gall to loudly second-guess God. Annoyed, the Creator lets his critic try his hand at directing the affairs of men. The newly omnipotent reporter discovers the dilemma of adjudicating humanity’s billions of competing petitions, and with rue and remorse begs the Almighty to take it all back.
The tech giants that unleashed the cacophony of global communications are similarly overwhelmed. As the number of social-media enthusiasts has exploded across our orb, so has a list of complaints from users who say their messages are electronically folded, bent, spindled or mutilated simply because of an offending turn of phrase.
Google and Twitter last week invited representatives from Facebook, Microsoft, Snapchat and some other of the nation’s most influential technology companies to discuss ways of countering “information operations” and safeguarding their platforms with “election protections.” Buzzfeed, an online news outlet, observes that following the political convulsions arising from Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, computer programs meant to block hacker mischief have been unable to discern the difference between hate speech and edgy opinion, some of it well meant, and this poses a clear and present danger to the First Amendment. Those silenced are frequently conservatives.
The issue of social-media silencing has come full boil in recent days, triggered by the Facebook banning of Infowars conspiracy monger Alex Jones after he violated taboos. In domino effect, other social-media giants followed. Twitter shut down Mr. Jones for “only” a week.
Less obviously blatant is the phenomenon of “shadow banning,” in which social-media users find right-leaning content they’ve shared mysteriously disappearing. Salena Zito, a contributor to CNN News, which is not conservative by any measure, complains that her commentary, “Why Trump’s supporters won’t care about Cohen and Manafort convictions,” published in the New York Post, vanished from her Facebook page. Facebook ignored her requests for an explanation, and then restored the commentary without so much as an “oops.”
Algorithms, or mechanical searches, sift through the billions of messages daily to filter out offensive content, and some of it, from both right and left, is offensive indeed. But that reflects the expertise and foibles of the humans who create the algorithms. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey concedes that his monitors favor left-wing causes, but says that isn’t political bias. Indeed, what makes bias so frustrating is that bias is often difficult to recognize by those with the bias. President Trump, the most famous Twitter-head, disagrees. He recently tweeted that “Social Media is totally discriminating against Republican/Conservative voices.”
Jack Dorsey, along with Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, is expected to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Sept. 5 to defend Facebook’s methods of regulating content. They’re likely to face a government-led gauntlet. The public recently watched as FBI agent Peter Strzok crashed and burned, figuratively, attempting to persuade congressmen that personal bias displayed in his Trump-hating texts has in no way influenced his professional behavior in leading the anti-Trump investigation into whether Donald Trump and colluded with Vladimir Putin to fix the 2016 election.
Bias is a symptom of the human tendency to favor the familiar and detest the dissimilar. Like a shadow, it is a constant companion in many a walk through life. Unlike a shadow, however, intolerance won’t disappear when someone turns on the light. Democracy, goes one marketing cliche, dies in darkness. It is only through honest and transparent engagement with a variety of opinions that someone can evaluate the relative merits of opposing views.
Social media is regarded as electronic bulletin boards where everyone is free to post his thoughts. Such thoughts are exempt — for now — from the requirements of the Communications Decency Act that apply to paper-and-ink publishers who are liable for the content of third-party users. If the gatekeepers of conversation continue to tilt left as arbiters of acceptable speech, they, too, are likely to be subject on one sad day to the government’s rules, and learn the perils of playing God online.
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