The banning of Infowars from most major platforms is a sign of that process beginning to work. Civilization is winning, at last. Alex Jones went too far and the public, empowered by the same tools of social media he exploited, told the platforms that his behavior is unacceptable in a civilized society. The platforms—like media and like regulators—might prefer to start with a set of rules that can be enforced by government, by social-media managers, or by algorithms. But that’s not how we negotiate our standards. The breach makes the rule. We know pornography, propaganda, trolling, and spamming when we see it, and then write the rules to prevent it. That progress always seems to take too long, but it is prudent that we ban what we see rather than everything we might fear.
I fear we are rushing headlong into a moral panic, choosing to believe a dark image of the world and then to blame all its ills on technology, in the case of media (or on immigrants and the unwhite, in the case of the Trumpists). Here is Ashley Crossman’s definition: “A moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society at large. Typically, a moral panic is perpetuated by news media, fueled by politicians, and often results in the passage of new laws or policies that target the source of the panic. In this way, moral panic can foster increased social control.” Sound familiar?
Instead, we should view the evolution of the internet in context. First, it is vital to judge the totality of the value of the platforms and the net. Without them, we would not have #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, and the voices of the Parkland students, and Americans would not now finally see how often white people call the police on others who are living their lives while black. Look at your Facebook feed. I challenge you to find the infestation of Nazis in it (unless you already consort with them). You’ll find cats and cheese. You’ll find friends sharing babies or illnesses, reaching out for connection. You’ll find people who have not been spoiled or addicted by technology, who still have agency, ethics, and intelligence.
Second, we need to understand the problem we are trying to address: not technology but human behavior using technology, the bad acts of some small—yes, small—number of propagandists, trolls, misogynists, bigots, thieves, and jerks. They are manipulating the platforms, which if anything were too optimistic about human behavior as a whole. Today these platforms are our best defense against not only spam but also Russian election interference, now that we know its extent. Sadly, they are a better defense than our own government, led by a man who denies reality. They are our allies.
Third, those of us in media must acknowledge our responsibility for the messes we’ve made. Long before the net, media played a key role in polarizing the nation into red v. blue, black v. white, 99 percent v. 1 percent. CNN earned its money in conflict rather than resolution. Fox News has done more damage to American democracy than the internet. It was the media’s primary business model, built on volume and attention, that led to the clickbait that is the ruin of the net. Media and platforms as well as advertisers need to work together to build new business models based on value, on relationships, on accomplishment, on quality, on openness.