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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Social Media Is Not the Problem

Would a world of less heavily capitalized communications entities really lead to greater responsibility?

Image by Tim Gouw from Pixabay

Let’s assume, for purposes of argument, that basically all of the complaints about social media are correct. Then let’s also imagine, as Matt Yglesias periodically suggests on Twitter, that Facebook is shut down altogether; toss in Twitter and the others as well.

What would happen?

Censorship and Social Media

One possibility is that America would move toward a Chinese-style solution, with heavy censorship of the internet. Still, I think both public opinion and the First Amendment make that outcome unlikely. Furthermore, while the Chinese solution has been relatively practicable (as opposed to desirable) to date, there is no guarantee that will continue to be the case.

Alternatively, without tight censorship, substitutes for Facebook and Instagram and YouTube and Twitter will arise, possibly based in other countries if regulation so dictates. They might be less ad-funded, less profitable, and less easy to use, but the basic technologies for “putting every single idea out there” are already out of the box. Furthermore, it won’t be that hard to find and circulate those ideas, including the very bad ones, through a mix of aggregation and search and focused spread and redistribution.

Various intellectual debates will need to be re-litigated and re-fought over the internet, with somewhat different results.

The first question is whether anyone actually thinks that such a world of less heavily capitalized communications entities would lead to greater responsibility. The first cut answer, drawing on basic economics, would seem to be no.

The broader point is the relative popularities of various ideas and sources still will be upended, just as the printing press and radio also had some fairly radical (and not entirely positive) effects in their times. In essence, various intellectual and ideological debates will need to be re-litigated and re-fought over the internet, just as they were redone over television and radio, or earlier through papyrus and also clay tablets, of course with somewhat different results each time.

Many people hate that reality, but a reality it is. Let’s even say you are right to hate that reality (NB: not exactly my view).

Should you:

a) Go after the companies that make the clay tablets?

b) Go after the clay tablets and try to smash them?

c) Equip yourself to try to win the new intellectual and ideological battles for hearts and minds?

And what should we infer about the spiritual vigor of a society that might so heavily promote options a) and b)?

This article is reprinted with permission from Marginal Revolution.