During most of the 20th century, news was delivered primarily by professional reporters, via newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV. Although various media had biases, these biases were generally known and could be taken into account. There was a sharp distinction between what would be put on the news and opinion pages. Major media had correspondents in various places who would usually report events that they had physically covered. Although there were abuses and cover-ups (for example, FDR’s wheelchair), most news reports were relatively trustworthy. Americans laughed at the slanted stories found in the Soviet newspapers Pravda and Izvestia (Russians did, too).
The advent of the internet, and particularly social media, threw a massive monkey wrench into the system. First, it sliced out the financial heart of local media, and seriously hurt the national outlets as well, by taking over the functions of the classified sections. No longer do people search for apartments, jobs, or second-hand items in the newspaper, where a listing might take a couple of days to appear. Websites like Craigslist provide instant advertising, mostly for free. Print advertising in general took a massive hit.
The financial blow put local media out of business, and forced most of the regional and national media to divest from their correspondents in numerous locations. It was necessary for them to depend on wire services, which meant that many outlets had precisely the same stories. Investigative reporting, which requires long (expensive) hours of legwork, has also almost disappeared.
At the same time the politicization of the universities that began in the late 1960s, the creation of ethnic and gender studies departments and the weakening of traditional academic standards, brought forth a new generation of journalists and editors, many of whom were activists. The sharp distinction between the news and opinion pages blurred.
The major media, which drew its staff from universities, mostly leaned left. To counter this, the Right turned to independent news sources like talk radio as well as “new media” like blogs, podcasts, email newsletters, and so on. These outlets developed their own clientele, which was limited to a narrow ideological segment of the public. Soon media – both traditional and new media – separated itself into bubbles. A person could hear just one side of the story and consider himself well-informed. People living in different bubbles could barely communicate, because they didn’t even have the basic facts in common.
As if this weren’t enough, social media ballooned into a massive enterprise. In the second quarter of 2020, Facebook had 1.7 billion monthly active users. No single media outlet has ever approached even a fraction of that number. And it is controlled – or rather, guided, because it primarily controls itself – by a small group of managers and engineers whose goals are to maximize interaction, collect information, and target advertising. The algorithms used by these systems encouraged the partitioning of users into bubbles even more than before. All the major social media platforms are interconnected, even those that are competitors, sharing information about every aspect of the lives of those billions of humans that are its targets.
These platforms have become part of almost everyone’s life, in part because of their carefully and deliberately designed addictive nature. Many people spend far more time on them than in interaction with flesh-and-blood humans, and get most or all of their news about the outside world from them. And they have become essential to political life as well. Every candidate for any office must have a presence on multiple platforms. Newspaper reports about candidates and officeholders are often made up of quoted tweets or Facebook posts. Probably the primary contact between a politician and his electorate today is mediated by social media in one way or another.
Because social media are mostly unfiltered they contain a great deal of misinformation (false statements) and disinformation (deliberately false statements), put there by people inside and outside of a country for political (or psychological warfare) purposes. And this fact gave rise to a demand to police them. Somehow, it’s argued, there must be a process to purge the bad stuff and remove the bad actors.
This is the point at which the danger to free expression and democratic politics becomes manifest. After addicting the whole society – indeed, much of the world – to a device, a machine, that is almost the only source of communication and information for an enormous number of people, after destroying the traditional media, the engineers of the social media platforms are being asked to become arbiters of truth.
The idea of centralized control of the content of what have become the main arteries of human communication is beyond frightening. But that is what is being asked for. And that is what is being done. The fact that several left-leaning tech companies (Google, Apple, and Amazon) could get together and throttle a right-leaning one (Parler) – and I am making no judgment about the politics here, just the exercise of power – is shocking. The fact that tech companies could de-platform the President of the United States – is even more so, regardless of what one thinks about this president.
This happened quickly, within less than 20 years, the span of one generation. Because public speech today is so dependent on these social media platforms, their owners and engineers have the power to shut down people and ideas that they don’t like. Suppression of speech by governments is bad enough, but this is worse: there is some accountability for democratic governments, but there is absolutely none for these machines.
The power in their hands is almost absolute. Who in government or traditional media would dare to go against them? If current trends continue, they will have more power than governments. They may already have, whether they know it or not.
I suspect that they do know and have already started to exercise it.