Note: This is something I originally wrote for the New Gatekeepers blog at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer
Most technology journalists were naive in the early days of the social web, Verge senior editor Casey Newton admitted in a recent interview with CJR, in the sense that most of the coverage of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube focused on their benefits rather than the potential for harassment, abuse, and disinformation. “Yeah, I think we were naive,” Newton said in an interview on CJR’s discussion platform, Galley. “There had never been social networks with billions of users before, and it was difficult to predict the consequences that would come with global scale. The ability for anyone to beam a message instantly to hundreds of millions of people was new in human history, and for a while it wasn’t clear how that power would be used.”
For the most part, said Newton—a former senior writer at CNET and reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle—journalists in Silicon Valley covered the social platforms either as success stories or focused primarily on them as business stories, writing about IPOs and valuations. Some reporters and academics focused on the darker aspects of these networks, Newton said, but for most “that narrative was secondary to the question of whether these businesses would survive and thrive.” That all changed with the election in 2016, he said, when it became obvious how easily social platforms could be exploited by foreign states to spread propaganda. “We saw how weak the platform defenses were,” he said. “What had looked like fun distractions turned out to be far more consequential. And we’ve been catching up to those consequences ever since.”
I asked Newton whether he thought Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey should be held personally responsible for not foreseeing some of the issues that have been caused by their platforms. Zuckerberg admitted in an interview last year that for the first 10 years of the company’s life, all he thought about were the positive aspects of connecting billions of people in real time. And as a followup question, I asked Newton whether he thought the government should be regulating and/or breaking up Facebook, Google, and other mega-platforms.
“I don’t know how to hold them personally responsible,” he said. “Having members of Congress lecture them didn’t seem to have much effect. I can’t imagine that fines would have much effect, either. The way that corporations are supposed to work is that their boards of director hold executives personally responsible, firing them if the CEOs ever give them cause to. But Facebook has no real independent board — Zuckerberg has a controlling majority of the shares. And while Twitter used to fire its CEO on a regular basis, it long since stopped exerting any visible role over the company.”
As for the suggestion that Facebook and Google need to be broken up, something a number of members of Congress have floated as a proposal, Newton said he is sympathetic to that argument. “I think YouTube should be an independent company, and I think Facebook should spin out WhatsApp and Instagram,” he said. “The resulting competition would create more innovation for consumers, and create more friction for bad actors who want to manipulate our politics. The existence of more social networks could also help slow the spread of ideas, both good and bad — giving us all more time to think before we act.” While the platforms argue that breaking them up will make things worse, Newton said he believes that “none of these platforms felt existentially scary until they got really big — which is an argument, to my mind, of once again making them manageably small.”
While we were doing our interview, the news broke that Facebook is planning to pay a select group of publishers as much as $3 million for their content, which would live in a separate news tab on the social network. The fact that Facebook has tried similar things in the past—involving both news articles and short-form video—only to abandon or change these plans in mid-stream, has made many in the media industry wary of such promises. Others argue that cutting these kinds of deals privileges certain leading outlets while leaving smaller ones struggling to survive, and that partnering with Facebook in such a way makes publishers even more beholden to the company than they already are, perpetuating a dysfunctional relationship. But Newton said he is in favor of media outlets taking Facebook’s cash.
“I do think publishers should take the money here,” he said. “Social network ‘carriage fees’ have been a pet issue of mine for a while. Just as cable companies pay for access to high-quality channels, so, too, should social networks pay for access to high-quality journalism.” That kind of deal is a win-win-win, Newton said. “Publishers get money for journalism; readers get news they can trust; and Facebook gets a higher-quality news environment that can bolster our democracy while making the whole site more attractive for readers and advertisers.” As for those who are afraid that the money might disappear, this has always been the case, said Newton. “Will the money disappear at some point? Probably. But that’s true of so many sources of income that journalists rely on already: ad revenue from Google AMP clicks; inscrutable deals with OTT providers; kindly billionaires; and so on. A publisher’s job in 2019 is to get wherever the getting’s good, and use it to fund the maximum amount of journalism.”
One of the things Newton has written a lot about recently is the hellish work lives of professional content moderators for Facebook, so I asked him how he thinks the company and other platforms should solve that problem. “One reason content moderation hasn’t been effective to date is because the workers often are treated badly,” he said. “They’re outsourced, underpaid, they work in conditions that are often filthy, and they’re treated as low-skilled workers even when they’re working on high-stakes problems of civil society.” Other companies treat their moderators better than Facebook does, Newton said, giving them financial and mental health resources to cope with the stress of the job. “That seems like a great place for companies like Facebook and Twitter to start — bring workers in house and treat them as equals. And then let’s check back and see whether the overall quality of work hasn’t improved.”