We’ve arrived at the sad, dumb point in history at which the only thing less surprising than acts of mass violence are the ways in which our planet’s mega information distributors muck everything up with ensuing frauds, hoaxes, and confusion. The problem is thoroughly identified: Facebook, Google, and, to a lesser extent, Twitter have the quality control of a yard sale and the scale of 100,000 Walmarts. But despite all our railing and shaming, these companies have a major disincentive to reform: money.
In the wake of yet another American massacre, this time in Las Vegas, media scrutiny is aimed once more at Facebook, Google, and Twitter, for the same old reasons. The sites, time after time, and this time once more, served up algorithmic links to websites peddling deliberate lies and bottom-feeder misinformation. These companies provided an untold mass of online users with falsehoods posing as news resources, as is completely normal now and only noteworthy because it was pegged to a heinous national tragedy. The discussion will now swing from “This is bad” to “What can be done?”, and we can expect all the typically empty pro forma reassurance from Silicon Valley public relations offices. Don’t expect much more.
It’s extremely important to keep Fox News in mind these days. The network is essentially a less sophisticated delivery vehicle for the same sort of news that floats to the top of Facebook and other sites’ traffic: Insincere men barking half-truths and innuendos in order to piss people off. Facebook’s brilliant tweak to this formula was the realization that 1. You don’t need to pay your own team of Bad-Faith Freakout Men; there are plenty in the wild who will do it for free, and 2. Millions of people will take the opportunity to make their peers equally pissed off if given a button to press. The business is the same, though: Piqued emotion is a powerful commodity. It would seem ridiculous to ask Fox News why it doesn’t reform its portrayal of black children as animals and criminals, of Muslims as savages and bombers, and so forth. It’s obvious why they wouldn’t, because these portrayals are their stock-in-trade, and what company would put itself out of business? We find ourselves at a similar impasse with Facebook and friends.
There are a few numbers these companies live and die by. One of these numbers is the quantification of “engagement,” a term kept deliberately vague so it can be expanded more easily; it essentially translates to “things happening on the website.” For Twitter, this means tweets, retweets, favorites, and various other clicking activities. “More” is directly equivalent to “better for business,” no matter what exactly there is more of. For Facebook, this translates to writing posts, sharing posts, liking posts, and so forth. The more people are staring at Facebook or clicking its click-ables, the higher this engagement number goes, and the better the company looks to investors and advertisers, the two parties that determine whether an internet firm will be massively lucrative or dead. Google’s position here is slightly different in that individual user accounts matter less, but the gist is similar: The more people looking and clicking, the better. You only need to spend several minutes on the internet to realize that a lot of this looking and clicking includes things like racist witch hunts, white supremacist evangelizing, deliberate hoaxes, and maybe even electoral interference of some sort (it seems entirely plausible that foreign governments might take to Facebook to throw wrenches in our civic life because they know we love wrenches). For years now, the major internet information brokers have been promising and promising to improve, but delivering only the most marginal signs of improvement. This isn’t a sign of failure but of lack of effort. We have yet to see what it would look like for a major technology company to make a serious, concerted attempt to filter out deliberate acts of harm and deceit.
The notion that Twitter couldn’t curb spam bots and Nazis or that Google couldn’t blacklist 4chan from its news overview is absurd. The issue is that, for revenue purposes, engagement with the informational equivalent of a leaking septic tank is indistinguishable from engagement with news sources that aren’t explicitly trying to deceive and defraud readers. The political Facebook ads that were allegedly purchased by the Russian government went into the same money vault as ads from Nike and Pepsi, and rape-threat tweets count just as much on Twitter’s quarterly earnings calls as announcements from NASA and Denny’s. The increasingly toxic internet is working as designed by the companies that control most of it — corporate monoliths that hold the primary channels of digital information distribution and obligations to shareholders, not civil society.
There is, too, the problem that we just seem to enjoy being lied to and delight in abusing one another. Hoax posts and sketchy sites get traffic not just from fraud bots, but also from eager readers who care much more about tribalism and score-settling than about accuracy. Clearly, the status quo is awful, if not untenable. But there are a few obvious remedies; a tech colossus like Facebook is, as Max Read wrote in a fantastic account for New York magazine, something that transcends categorization, and few people, in the U.S. at least, want the government legislating what’s considered true or newsworthy. It may be that in the near future society decides that no company should have the capacity for distribution that Google, Facebook, and to a much lesser extent Twitter all possess (Twitter’s board no doubt wishes its engagement metrics were high enough to be a legitimate threat to civilization). Maybe the governments and regulatory bodies of the world will decide that no company, least of all Facebook, should be able to contact two billion people at once if it so chose, and break it into smaller, tamer pieces. Until then, at the very least, stop expecting these companies to move anywhere beyond the shortest distance achievable with dragged feet. There’s simply too much money to be made right now in the muck.