Facebook Is Not a Community: Speech, Freedom, and Responsibility

Olivia Solon, “Facebook’s plan to kill dangerous fake news is ambitious – and perhaps impossible”:

“Until now, Facebook has dealt with disinformation by making it less prominent in people’s news feeds. This week, the company announced it would start to delete inaccurate or misleading information created or shared ‘with the purpose of contributing to or exacerbating violence or physical harm’.

On the face of it, it seems like a reasonable and well-intentioned policy. However, the lightest interrogation reveals a mind-bogglingly complex and thankless task.”

Ezra Klein, “The controversy over Mark Zuckerberg’s comments on Holocaust denial, explained”:

“‘This is humanity.’ Zuckerberg’s view is that any platform that supports the interactions of 2 billion people will have, at any given moment, some small percentage of those people doing horrible things on it. That’s not a tech problem; it is, as he says, a human problem. You cannot achieve the scale and centrality Facebook wants without becoming a platform for some of humanity’s darker impulses.

The tension is that while Zuckerberg is certain he wants Facebook to have that kind of scale, reach, and openness, the rest of the world really isn’t. That’s not to say they know where the line should be drawn, or who should be empowered to draw it, but Facebook has become too big for it to continue to exist in a state of conceptual ambiguity, where no one, not even its founder, knows quite what it is or how it should be governed.”

Alexis Madrigal, “Why Facebook Wants to Give You the Benefit of the Doubt”:

“Facebook can gently stop posts from being seen without actually taking them down. Call it ‘sort of censorship.’ We don’t know precisely how the downgrading system works, but it’s reasonable to assume that it is quite sophisticated, and not likely to be a simple toggle. Think about how that applies to the old saying ‘You can’t yell Fire! in a crowded theater.’ Facebook can decide to let you yell Fire! with as many exclamation points as you like, but can also choose to only let a small fraction of its users hear you.

You don’t need to be a free-speech absolutist to imagine how this unprecedented, opaque, and increasingly sophisticated system could have unintended consequences or be used to (intentionally or not) squelch minority viewpoints. Everyone, Facebook included, wants to find a way out of the mess generated by every voice having a publishing platform. But what if there is no way out of it?”

Wendell Berry, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, Community”:

— “Much of the modern assault on community life has been conducted within the justification and protection of the idea of freedom. Thus it is necessary to try to see how the themes of freedom and community have intersected.”

— “The idea of freedom, as Americans understand it, owes its existence to the inevitability that people will disagree. It is a way of guaranteeing to individuals and to political bodies the right to be different from one another.”

— “If freedom is understood as merely the privilege of the unconcerned and uncommitted to muddle about in error, then freedom will certainly destroy itself.”

— “[T]o define freedom only as the public privilege of private citizens is finally inadequate to the job of protecting freedom. It leaves the issue too public and too private.”

— “… we need to interpose between the public and the private interests a third interest: that of the community. When there is no forcible assertion of the interest of the community, public freedom becomes a sort of refuge for escapees from the moral law—those who hold that there is, in Mary McGrory’s words, ‘no ethical transgression except an indictable one.'”

Repeat after me: Facebook is not a community. Facebook is not a community. Facebook is not a community.

It’s scale precludes the possibility that it can be a community in the sense Berry intends. The longer Zuckerberg continues to imagine his platform as a community, the more intractable its problems will become.

It is at best an algorithmically mediated assemblage of individuals, an assemblage whose effects bleed over into the life of actual communities, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Concluding provocation: It is also a machine for (a)moral formation, whose ideal subjects will be less likely to participate in the life of actual communities.

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