We’ve said it before: technology has equal potential for good as it does for bad. And in the hands of the greater community, unfortunately, the bad seems so much the worse. What the wizards of Silicon Valley have done is to create platforms unlike anything that’s ever existed before—and right now, we are discovering that we have to “break some things” in order to make this good for all.
But here’s the irony: Facebook (arguably one of the biggest sources of news and influence) was created by a guy who just wanted to make fun of the popular kids at his school. Now, as a result of his college experiment taking off like a rocket, he is being asked to play moral mediator for a group of followers larger than what many of the world’s major religions can boast.
Here might be a good time to review exactly what Google, Facebook, and Twitter are. Tech companies. Not political advisors, not ethics coordinators, not anything other than the companies who provide nifty toys for us to play and work with. So, when did they become the poster children for all our societal woes?
I suppose it can be argued that the moment of that shift came when their toys reached unprecedented levels of influence. And, even though what these companies are doing is unique in history, the fact that they are companies selling a service means they are under the same age-old obligation of business ethics. Especially when they’re offering something that is being used for unethical reasons.
We saw something similar crop up when Craigslist started being the vehicle for sex trafficking and political scandals. A public service site, intended to replace much of what the newspaper classifieds were used for, that ended up grappling with these very same issues. Only with much less international flair.
But why are these platforms having such a hard time reigning in the miscreants and abusers? It helps, perhaps, to remember that managing these socially-oriented agendas was not in the job descriptions of any of the first employees for these companies. Perhaps that is why they are doing such a bad job of handling these issues.
Without making excuses for these billionaires, I’ll agree that there are no clear lines for managing the side-effects of running a multi-billion-dollar company that seems to blossom out of control most of the time. For many in this industry, it probably seems like viral success is practically impossible to avoid.
However, some form of regulation is necessary to bring the necessary balance to these companies’ authority. That is clearer than ever in the wake of fake news, terrorist recruiting, and Cambridge-Analytica-style scandals.
Of course, to ensure that lawful users of the platforms are able to freely express their views without censorship makes this a finer point than we’ve ever seen before. Social media is so ubiquitous in modern communication that it should be classified and regulated as a utility… only it isn’t as simple as that.
The closest thing we have to relate platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook to is the our country's Right to Gather. This has become the new gathering place; online and with a limited character count. That makes it pointedly different--in terms of being government involvement--rather than just a simple utility.
This quandary lands us smack-dab in the middle of uncharted waters with regards to regulating social media: we can't regulate it like a utility, exactly, because we shouldn't necessarily censor its users; but we also can't legislate it like a bill because it’s a "necessary" service that we've turned into our new gathering place.
But it's clear that something needs to be done, if for no other reason than because of the horrific ends that a few bad players of social media are taking it to. Only, we keep coming back to the fact that this slippery fish was caught by people and organizations that were not suited to make solid moral decisions for the rest of the country.
These ethics are completely new ground for Silicon Valley. And the industry hotbed whose goals were to change the world with technology—not to mire themselves in the slough of social maintenance—carry the keys to the future ethics of journalism and public speech.
It’s true, they’ve changed the world with their innovations. But, now, they're dealing with the unintended consequences: the inevitable cost of becoming an indispensable part of modern society.