Tech

What the Fight Over Facebook Misses

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The president of the United States and one of America’s most powerful companies are like spouses stuck in an argument over dirty socks: They’re avoiding the real problem.

In the past week, President Biden and Facebook have been in a war of words over vaccine misinformation. Each side took an extreme position that distracted them and us from a deeper issue: Americans have become so divided that it’s difficult to even begin to confront our problems. We’ve seen this with the pandemic, climate change, violent crime and more.

My wish for all of us, our elected leaders and the technology companies that mediate our discourse, is for everyone to stay glued to what they can do to find common ground.

To recap the grudge match: President Biden late last week said that internet networks like Facebook were “killing people” because he believes they aren’t doing enough to stop the spread of misleading information about Covid-19 or vaccines for the virus. Facebook shot back that it was helping save lives by amplifying authoritative coronavirus information and said that the White House was trying to deflect blame for missing its vaccination goals.

President Biden walked back his provocative language, but the White House continued to press Facebook to do more, including to provide information on the prevalence of coronavirus misinformation on the social network. My colleague Sheera Frenkel reported that Facebook doesn’t actually have this data, in part because the company hasn’t tried hard to find out.

Exhausted yet? I am. My former colleague Charlie Warzel called this a “great example of social media-influenced and flattened discourse that is poisoning us all.”

Both Facebook and the White House are a little bit right and wrong, as my colleague Cecilia Kang said on The Daily this week.

On the White House side, officials started with nuanced suggestions from the surgeon general to improve health information, including recommendations for government officials and social media companies. It was basically forgotten once the president and other officials started their un-nuanced blaming of Facebook.

Facebook is a little bit right and wrong, too. Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview released on Thursday that the public doesn’t consider a police department a failure if crime is more than zero, implying that Facebook can’t be expected to get rid of every piece of bad information or incitement to violence. It’s a fair point, and it raises questions about what Zuckerberg and the rest of us consider an acceptable level of misinformation and other egregious behavior on the site, and how the company measures success.

But it would help if Facebook did more to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: Facebook, YouTube and Twitter play an important role in informing the public and in misinforming the public. It would also help if the company simply said aloud what Sheera reported — that it doesn’t know the prevalence of misleading coronavirus information on its social network and cannot answer the White House’s questions.

Doing that analysis would help improve our collective understanding of how information spreads online, just as Facebook’s (belated and reluctant) self-assessment of Russian propaganda around the 2016 U.S. election improved our collective knowledge about foreign influence campaigns.

But if Facebook told us tomorrow how much misleading information was circulating about the coronavirus, Americans would still argue about the meaning of the data and what to do about it.

And we’d repeat the same fights over who is to blame for misinformation, the limits of freedom of expression and whether social platforms are doing too much or too little to control what’s said on their sites.

The fundamental problem is that we have so little common ground. We don’t all agree how much to focus on a virus that has killed more than 600,000 Americans or how to balance prevention measures that have disrupted people’s lives and the economy. We can’t agree on whether or how to slow climate change, and are not prepared to deal collectively with the consequences. It seems the only thing we can agree on is that the other side can’t be trusted.

Is this the fault of social media companies’ business models and algorithms, people trying to make a fast buck, irresponsible politicians who play on our emotions, or our fears of becoming sick or destitute? Yes.

That shouldn’t let anyone or any company off the hook for nurturing an environment of distrust. But there is no simple answer to what the misinformation researcher Renée DiResta has called a whole-of-society problem.

That’s why days of bickering between the White House and Facebook don’t get us anywhere. We fixate on scoring points in arguments and details like missing data, and ignore the much bigger picture. We cannot agree on anything important. We don’t trust one another. That’s the real issue we need to solve.



  • Rich dudes in space: The internet was once the exclusive realm of big government — until technology executives made it a place for billions of people. Now technologists like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk want to do the same thing for space, my colleagues David Streitfeld and Erin Woo write.

    Related: The Amazon founder’s spaceflight this week made Bezos the “Dorian Gray of dorkiness,” Jacob Bernstein says.

  • Get ready to fix your own tractor! (If you want.) The Federal Trade Commission voted to endorse the principle of “right to repair,” the idea that manufacturers of smartphones, home appliances and farm equipment should not restrict people from buying parts and manuals for product repairs. Large companies including Apple and John Deere have cost people and the planet by tightly controlling who can fix their products.

  • Just watch the bears: We all deserve the live web feed of bears doing bear things, Insider says.

It’s a horse. Wearing horse suspenders. Made from human bluejeans.


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