Information Is Never Free: The role of social media in the new town square

Chris Rudkowski
Jun 1, 2020 · 10 min read
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Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash

Hopping on Twitter or Facebook is like walking into a mob in the middle of your town square. Our new town square- our primary place of meeting, entertainment, exchanging products and services- is the internet. The problem is that unlike a traditional town square, our new town square has platforms with much greater influence on the public.

In a traditional town square, it is in the best interest of everyone using it to keep the space cordial. Over time, a community's town square develops norms, designated spaces, and a common approach to addressing any issues that arise. This happens naturally. If you take up a public space, you tend to exist in a specific and defined relationship with others in that space, such as the public. Shop owners, newsstands, entertainers, town officials, and the public all tend to have their defined roles and norms within this space.

Recently, there has been discussion about Twitter's approach to handling information posted by the President on its platform, and how that varies from Facebook's approach. Twitter flagged one post from President Donald Trump, placing a fact check warning on it for reasons relating to election information and vote-by-mail. Another post had a warning placed on it because it violates Twitter's rules regarding inciting violence. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was on Fox News stating that private companies should not be the “arbiter of the truth” online. Whereas Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was quick to respond, arguing that they are not the arbiter of the truth and that the company would “continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally”.

What this argument boils down to is what role private companies have online, especially social media with their large platforms and often unchecked information. Let's walk through this issue, using the analogy of a town square.

Did old town squares have one place to collect information? And was that source of information the arbiter of truth? Well, there were newsstands with papers that may or may not be valuable depending on the reader, similar to our current method of browsing our favorite sites on the web. And just like papers from a newsstand, customers could purchase and read what they deemed valuable or interesting- not necessarily truthful. Unlike newspapers, large social media platforms are free (pending internet access)- but should they be? And what happens if they’re not?

So if we didn’t always regulate information in the past, based on truth, then why would we do it now? Well, I think it's worth exploring this analogy more because the internet is not exactly like a traditional newsstand.

At a traditional newsstand, someone is selling information to the public, it is not free like most social media and websites are. A comparable analogy of what the internet is, applied to the old town square, would be if a newsstand had a large gathering of people around it. Or to take it a step earlier, a raised platform with a large gathering of people around it, who are listening to the speakers on the platform. Both social media platforms today and literal platforms of the past were places where people may have gone for information.

Picture this, you're walking through your town square and you see a large crowd of people around someone talking. You have no idea what the crowd is about, but since its a crowd of people listening to someone talk, you go and check it out. Just like most of us naturally end up on social media. Some of what the speaker is saying is important and some of it’s not. But since someone is sharing information and you’re now part of a crowd, you decide to stick around. Just like most of us stick around social media. No one wants to miss out!

Now I’m sure government officials in the past would certainly use a platform to talk to the public, either their own platform or the one in the town square. It wouldn’t matter, because most people who were around would come and listen anyways because they valued the information that came from those in power or leadership positions.

So far the analogy holds and it sounds similar to what is experienced with social media today. But what if in the old town square, the town official speaking from the platform, starts to voice their opinions very loudly, speaks more than usual, and much of what was being said wasn’t true? And the town official has become more engaged with the crowd and their supporters as opposed to just relaying information… more on this in a bit.

Let’s also say that there is only one platform in the town square, and its owned by one person. The owner of this platform, where anyone can talk from, realizes they can make money from the crowd of people who gather around it, via selling ideas/products/services to everyone while they listen to what the speaker has to say. And let's say the town official, as a speaker on the platform, realizes they also benefit from the platform, as it allows them to spread their message and awareness of who they are. Both the platform owner and the town official understand the value the other brings to the table, so they continue to operate as usual, both gaining value from the crowds.

It is worth noting too, that the platform owner has established a set of rules and standards for the platform that all speakers and the crowd have to follow. This was established before the town official used the platform. To keep it reasonable, these rules and standards apply to everyone.

Then, as mentioned before, one day the town official (speaking from the platform) starts to voice their opinions very loudly, speak more than usual, and much of what is being said isn’t true. This information and behavior go against the established rules and standards set by the platform owner. Thus, the platform owner decides they have had enough and decides to enforce these rules. But what if the town official has already skirted the rules quite often, so much so that it became a norm, and everyone- including the platform owner- became used to it. Now when the platform owner finally starts to enforce the rules, the town official yells at the platform owner, saying his platform rules are ridiculous and that since he is the official of the land in which the platform resides, they should be free to say what they want.

Our conversation about what role social media platforms should play on the internet is essentially this old town square scenario- except the part where the “rules and standards apply to everyone”. We know the rules and standards have not always been applied to everyone on social media, assuming there are rules, to begin with.

Now we are at the part of the scenario where the platform owner has to decide if the rules of the platform apply to the town official and if their standard of truth will be upheld. And if so, how will it be upheld? Will it be upheld for every sentence that the town official makes? Also, what happens if enforcing these rules is difficult and may be seen as partisan by members of the crowd? And what if members of the crowd find the official's information valuable (factual or not)?

The town official governs the space in which the platform exists. But, the official does not own the platform itself, nor do they own the actual infrastructure that makes up the town square. So what does the platform owner do? Well, that's just it. The analogy starts to break down when you realize that an old town square is limited in space. And information is limited in how fast it can spread, and who it spreads to. The crowd filters people in and out, so the public isn’t too distracted by it all. The overall power and influence the town official or any speaker for that matter has on the members of the town are limited in space and time. The abundance of information being shared aloud has only a marginal impact on the community…

Our internet is nothing like that. It is far-reaching across most of the globe. Information spreads in a matter of seconds. Government officials have a much greater amount of power and influence if they know how to use social media platforms to their advantage. The consequences of not enforcing rules and standards on social media are much greater than would be a platform in the old town square.

Free information can lead to greater influence, which can lead to greater power, which can lead to unjust or unequal outcomes for the general public. An unjust and unequal space in turn places people into boxes and provides negative outcomes- A system that is less free when you look at non-monetary costs.

The problem is that in an old town square, the other space owners had a shared interest in keeping norms and enforcing rules, along with the platform owner. If chaos from the platform grew and the crowds grew to the point they were negatively impacting business, entertainment, and public order, it was in the best interest of everyone involved to step in and work together to put an end to it. Right? Well, not exactly. Because shopowners then, like online businesses now, would have something to gain from large gatherings of people near their products and services (similar to ads and political messaging online). Where does that leave us?

The old town square meant sharing information, networking, and respectful communication, because the shop owners, customers, and everyone in the square relied on being cordial and providing quality products and services in order to survive. It wasn’t perfect and others surely took advantage, but it didn’t need to be perfect because the overall chaos was minimum, and the impact on the public was marginal. There was still a general model of following norms and rules. These norms and rules very well may go out the window when social media companies, news corporations, and information hubs, have no obligation to tell the truth or edit what information is being pushed out. And quite frankly, the truth does not always mean profits. It becomes easy for online influence and competition to prevail- whether it's through social media posts, breaking news headlines, ad clicks, and campaigns.

But what would happen if we the public, pay for our news instead of relying on the current model? The online marketplace is free to access, but the products and services aren’t free. Online entertainment such as Netlfix requires subscriptions which seems to work for them. YouTube on the other hand is free, but they do provide an option for YouTube Premium where ads are removed and access to better features is provided. It’s worth noting that YouTube also has its problems with moderation. So does Facebook. And even when you try setting up large teams of moderators, which can be in the thousands, that doesn’t always work well either. Platforms can and have started using AI to moderate, but that has its own set of problems such as accidentally marking content as spam. Not to mention the risks associated with not effectively moderating essential information relating to Covid-19 or other events.

Will paying for our information help with this moderation? Will it get rid of the difficulties with misinformation, bots, wrongful moderation, and so forth? No. But it very well may give these platforms some time and incentive to provide a quality platform, based on mostly agreed-upon rules. They can also use their new profit model to hire the sheer number of moderators and infrastructure (human and AI) they would need to enforce its guidelines for every user. Opposed to the traditional profit model that often does not encourage truth and fairness. This model is only one idea, and of course, there should not be a paywall behind everything on the internet (which at this point is a global public good- even though it's not treated as such). It’s just important to see which parts of the internet act as the traditional newsstand, but with more life-impacting utility.

I wouldn’t expect online moderation reform to be perfect, but it would be better than it is now, and most importantly it provides even ground for these platforms to enforce moderation on those in positions of power- government or otherwise. Everyone abides by the same rules, and so must you [person or group with large following/influence]… Not to mention that even-enforcement of rules is likely more defendable in court, as opposed to the nonuniform approach currently used.

This new model can be worked out in different ways, but I think providing an optional paid and premium version of a social media platform does not lead to our desired outcome of a fair and transparent space. Some places of information such as podcasts and news sites have already started to charge for access to their media- whether its three free articles and then you have to pay, or you have to pay but important/emergency news is always free, or a model where members can pay however much money they can afford per month…

Now that we are used to having free information, is such a model even possible on large social media platforms? Is it possible for other sources of information? Does it exclude anyone from accessing important information? There are a lot of concerns that need to be worked out, but I think most of us can agree that the status quo is not sustainable. When misinformation posted online can lead to interference or risks with our election and health, both of which have occurred to some degree, we must ask ourselves if the risks are worth it. Are the risks to our government, social order, health, international relations, and so forth really acceptable?

We need to ask ourselves if we want our new town square to have no rules. A platform with no rules. Comparing our access to information online to the way we accessed information in the past, is a mistake. We are dealing with a much larger and complex system, which means we need to look at the problem differently than before. Different problems don’t always require different solutions. They require different questions and new approaches. They require a different model altogether.

Note: I am not claiming that any post or message on these platforms is or is not true or that I agree with any approach taken by a social media company. I am simply providing a different perspective on this problem.

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