Six Steps Toward a Civilized Facebook

Ideas for design of a social network that discourages the spread of hate and demagoguery.

Facebook is a private platform, that trades as a public company. It isn’t the street corner, it isn’t a free speech zone. It’s a business. As things stand, as people will likely react to the hate coming from the Trump administration to withdrawing from participation on social networks, it is in their interests to intentionally design the platform so that the experience — for all — but especially marginalized groups, is a positive one. What follows are a set of things it can do, beyond mere disallowing of posting of “fake news”, to make the experience more positive:

Retroactively ban posting of links by people who’ve posted fake news, even inadvertently, Over time, “negative karma” would fade, and once enough true links are posted over a period of time, said links can start appearing back in other people’s feeds. While some fake news posters were doing so earnestly and inadvertently, it is likely that most knew they were engaging in a campaign of propaganda during the most recent election. There should be, properly, social sanction for those who were complicit in driving this. Such a system, or one like it, would help rid the system of such bad actors.

Facebook is well within it’s rights to ban users who post or say clearly racist, sexist, or homophobic things. The bar would be high for this, but enforcement of a reasonable overton window would be a stick to keep things civil. Facebook is a private company, and there is no requirement that they hold themselves to the same standard as the first amendment. While there are some limits now, they should bring those in a bit. Petitions such as “ending women’s suffrage”, etc. — people who start or promote such things could be rightly banned from the platform.

To that end, Facebook should, on balance, not allow it’s platform to be used as a way to organize clearly violent protest. This would be true left or right. It’s tricky, but is important, especially in this age, where private FB groups can use coded language to organize violence against groups — as diverse as blacks, police officers, or anything in between.

Facebook should promote the inclusion into feeds of high quality articles. This doesn’t mean high brow, but for example, if an article is getting lots of likes or positive engagement from people across the political spectrum, it is well within it’s rights to promote an environment of positivity by making it more likely that such articles are showcased.

However, it should be neutral politically, but fact based. A discussion on the merits of, say, charter schools, despite that it may not be liked by school union activists, should be totally supported. A discussion on the merits of subjecting churches in the US to income tax, despite that it is highly opposed by religious people, also totally legitimate. Obviously, it is a hard problem — where one puts the limits can be a challenge. But clearly, articles that question the right of a person to exist or have equal rights is on the bad side, whereas intellectual arguments over basic policy — should be promoted.

Lastly, Facebook should go through further measures to ban the creation of sock puppet accounts. There are all sorts of good ways one can do this, and they already do this to some degree. However, efforts should be redoubled to make sure you are whom you say you are.

This isn’t about shutting down political or religious discourse, or shutting down legitimate debate. However, even in a society that embraces free speech, a debate over whether a given race, gender, or sexual orientation of people should have equal rights simply isn’t legitimate. Those things are not up for debate in any civilized society. And while people who believe these vile things have every right to preach it on the street corner, there is no such obligation by private platforms to not curb dissemination of hate, intolerance, and outright lies.

It is predictable that, should Facebook implement these measures, there would be howls of protest. While some would see legitimate concerns about censorship, it should be noted that all private forms engage in some level of censorship. Nobody is stopping a racist from publishing a book. However, the platform is under no obligation to make itself into a platform of hate. Facebook, Twitter, and all civilized social networks should heed this — and act accordingly.