The Infowars Purge, and Life among Responsible Information Monopolies

(Adapted and updated from my remarks at the 2018 International Communication Association Annual Meeting.)

Now that most of the major social media platforms have done something about Alex Jones/Infowars, I think it’s worth taking a minute to think about what we should expect from our social media platforms.

Should we be concerned that Google and Facebook can essentially silence a program for vague Terms of Service violations? In the abstract, yeah. Sure.

It reminds me of a quote from Steven Johnson’s WIRED story about Cloudflare removing protections from neo-nazi sites post-Charlottesville. Matthew Prince (Cloudflare’s CEO) remarked, “Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.”

Google and Facebook are effectively information monopolies. Run afoul of Google and Facebook and your ability to be heard online is dramatically reduced. Those two companies cannot completely silence speech they disagree with, but they can effectively muffle it so that it fails to rise above the din of online conversation. In today’s digital media landscape, Facebook and Google determine what types of online speech are profitable.

Many of my peers within the internet research community reach this point as their conclusion: Google and Facebook are too big. They ought be regulated. In the United States, it has become fashionable to call for aggressive regulatory oversight. We could adopt our own GDPR! The FCC or the FEC or the FTC could craft their own regulatory frameworks, or apply the existing frameworks that were developed for previous media giants. We could develop a CFPB for the protection of consumer data privacy. The government could even deploy anti-trust enforcement.

In the aftermath of the Infowars ban, they are again ringing these anti-monopoly bells. Infowars may be the worst of the worst, sure. But whenever the platforms act, there’s an opportunity to complain about their size and power.

Here’s the problem, though: calls for regulating the big Internet companies rest on a central suspension-of-disbelief. A CFPB for consumer data and a US equivalent to the GDPR are reasonable arguments, but we do not live in reasonable times.

For those who have determined that the solution is “the government should regulate/break up Google and Facebook,” let me ask: which government? This government?

Which alumnus of the Trump golf and real estate empire ought to be in charge of regulating digital media platforms?

The creative fiction at the heart of “regulate the monopolies” arguments is that they pretend we are talking about a generic government. What’s missing today is not a failure of imagination or a failure of courage from public intellectuals or government officials. The U.S. government is facing a crisis of competence. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the State Department, the EPA, and every other agency is being hollowed out. Rebuilding our regulatory capacity is going to be a multi-year, potentially a multi-DECADE affair.

This is an uncomfortable reality. It feels unprincipled to recommend that the Obama administration should have regulated, and the alternate-universe Clinton administration should regulate, but then suggest a different course for life under the Trump administration. In an ideal world, we would be crafting a sensible framework that constrains the behavior of information monopolies.

But we don’t get to live in an ideal world. We’re stuck living in this one.

So what should be done in this world? Well, let me start by invoking Spider-Man’s credo: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter all have quasi-monopolistic power today, and they will maintain that power for the foreseeable future. So we, their consumers/users, ought to demand they wield that power responsibly.

From a responsibility framework, it seems obvious that the Infowars ban was long overdue. Alex Jones has been a Sandy Hook truther, a Parkland truther, and a purveyor of the #pizzagate conspiracy theory. Last month, he tried to convince his millions of listeners that Democrats were about to launch an armed revolt (#secondcivilwar). In our current social media environment, Jones’s shtick is equal parts dumb, dangerous, and profitable-as-hell. soaks up the clicks and advertising revenues from his fanciful lies, and takes no responsibility when his listeners turn violent.

Infowars is a nice gut-check for social media platforms. Jones is so brazen, so far beyond the pale, that if he isn’t in violation of your Terms of Service, there must be something wrong the Terms of Service. (Speaking of which… Twitter: Do better.)

Second, and more broadly: a nervous monopoly is a better monopoly. This is evident in Facebook’s improving behavior over the past several months. The company has been scooping up social scientists and policy analysts. It has been devoting serious attention to malicious information campaigns, and wading into the hard problems of monitoring political behavior on the site. The company has also been developing a partnership with academics that, while far from perfect, should be a massive upgrade over the previous state of Facebook research.

A comfortable Facebook ignores external criticism and doesn’t notice that political ads are being bought with rubles. A nervous Facebook goes through the (messy, imperfect) process of trying to plan for and regulate the political use and abuse of the platform.

Third, a reputation-conscious monopoly, motivated by self-interest, can provide some valuable public goods. The era of the Bell telephone monopoly was also the era of Bell Labs. Microsoft has replicated this model with MSR and Data & Society. Where is the Facebook/Apple/Amazon/Twitter equivalent? (In an ideal world, pure research would not be beholden to the largesse of semi-benevolent corporate giants. But, again, need I remind you what world we actually inhabit?)

If we accept that we are going to be living with (semi-)benevolent information monopolies, at least for the next few years, then what does that mean for advocates and public intellectuals?

For political advocates, it means we should continue to monitor these monopolists. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter should both be targets of political action and central infrastructure for political action. Yes, there is a contradiction here. Political organizing is full of contradictions; make peace with it. The best tactical innovations in the near-term are going to come from movements that pay attention to how Facebook, Google, and Twitter are changing their algorithms. Find ways to take advantage of where the platforms are headed.

For public intellectuals/digital researchers, I think it means we need to stop dunking on these companies at every opportunity. Every time Facebook is in the news, members of the research community rush to amplify attacks (well-founded or not). When conservative media howled about bias in “trending topics,” we knew those complaints were bullshit (Facebook wasn’t biased against conservative news. It was biased against specific websites with a history of false reporting. That’s completely reasonable and appropriate.), but it was an opportunity to make a point about monopolies, so everyone wrote a think-piece. The same was true for the emotional contagion study (which was actually emotional mimicry, not contagion!).

These monopolists are at least semi-benevolent. They are tackling hard problems, filling in the regulatory white space while our government is incapacitated. We can work with them, and help them craft policies and programs that take their responsibilities seriously and increase the public good. We can also take them to task when they actually fail and deserve legitimate scorn (again, Twitter, WTF?!?). But the current status quo of turning every headline into an opportunity to yell “see? MONOPOLIES!” is a cheap high. It leaves people within these companies rightly angry with a research community more interested in scoring points than in solving complex problems.

If we were living in reasonable times, then I could understand the logic of turning every bad media cycle into a call for aggressive regulation. But, at least in today’s United States, we do not live in reasonable times.

So let’s rejoice in Alex Jones finally facing consequences. Let’s demand Twitter catch up with the other big digital platforms, and take its public responsibility seriously. And let’s leave the slippery slope arguments for some later, saner time.