To Facebook — and Its Critics: Please Don’t Screw Up Our Internet

Jeff Jarvis
Mar 26, 2018 · 10 min read

A post in three parts: First, I dissect a specimen of the current elitist media attack on Facebook and its users as a guidepost on the path to moral panic. Second, as a counterpoint, I admire a report about how the leaders of our tomorrow — the youth of Parkland — are using social media to change the world. Third, I will tell Facebook it is not doing nearly enough to fix itself and if it does not act more decisively, honestly, and quickly, it will invite short-sighted regulation that could ruin the net for us all.

[First, my disclosure: I raised money from Facebook, Craig Newmark, the Ford Foundation, AppNexus, and others to start the News Integrity Initiative. We are independent of Facebook and I receive no payment from any platform.]


I have respected Matthew Yglesias as a political commentator since he was a blogger as a student at Harvard (he graduated a year before Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook there). I don’t agree with him this time. At Vox, Yglesias wrote an evisceration of Facebook, going so far as to tell Zuckerberg to shut it down. As I see it, his screed is:

  • Elitist. Once ensconced in media, Yglesias pulls the ladder up behind him, proposing to cut off the tool that gives so many others — two billion others — the means to speak and connect. Siva Vaidhyanathan, no great ally of Facebook (whose own book-length scrutiny of its impact is coming out this fall) makes this point well in The New York Times. To those who would #DeleteFacebeook, Vaidhyanathan warns: “Please realize, though, that you might be offloading problems onto those who may have less opportunity to protect privacy and dignity and are more vulnerable to threats to democracy.”

To blame a single actor for larger ills in society is a sign of moral panic, which Ashley Crossmen defines as “a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society at large. Typically, a moral panic is perpetuated by news media, fueled by politicians, and often results in the passage of new laws or policies that target the source of the panic. In this way, moral panic can foster increased social control.” Sound familiar?


Before deciding that Facebook is the root of all society’s ills today, I urge you to read Dave Cullen’s inspiring Vanity Fair report inside the “secret meme lab” run by the students, survivors, leaders, and heroes of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

To echo Margaret Sullivan, these young people are “amazing communicators.” That is to say, they are smart, informed, and articulate. Now if you try to argue that they come off so well because they come from privilege —and they do — listen to all the many young people from many different schools and communities who spoke and were interviewed at the March for Our Lives. This is an articulate generation. The collection of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Snap did not ruin them. It empowered them. It connected them. It taught them how to speak to a public. In these dark, divided, Trumpian times when even an optimist such as myself could start to lose hope, I have regained my optimism watching, listening to, and following these young people.

Says Cullen: “This response would not have been possible for the Columbine generation. Today, every high-school kid in America is a content creator, churning out daily posts on Instagram and Snapchat without a thought — or, actually, with a tremendous amount of thought…. For the two dozen kids that came together in Cameron Kasky’s living room, content creation isn’t just a social diversion; it’s a way of life.”

I would call them more than “content creators.” I would call them leaders. Cullen’s report shows how they have learned to use their social-media savvy and use it responsibly. They listen. They collaborate. They understand and govern their impact. Journalists, too, should learn from them and how they use these tools to inform, to educate, and to engage people not in “content” but in conversation and action. These are lessons I will share with our Social Journalism students at CUNY.

Without their social tools — if they were still dependent on the gatekeepers of big, old, elite media — this campaign, like #BlackLivesMatter, could not have grown. For that alone, it is well worth understanding, protecting — and, yes, fixing — these platforms and our net.


Having defended Facebook and then praised it, now I will demand more of it, much more. If Facebook does not take quick and decisive action, I worry that we will find not just Facebook but our internet regulated in perilous ways. I do not believe that government — especially our government in the U.S. today — is competent to regulate the platforms and thus our speech. We can all see the future in the form of Europe’s regulation. Germany’s NetzDG hate-speech law and Europe’s “right to be forgotten” court ruling are monuments to unintended consequences for freedom of expression. I fear that the upcoming EU GDPR privacy regulations will also have serious consequences for the future of post-mass media. And at the extreme, I dread China’s internet. The Trump administration’s regulation? I shudder to imagine.

Zuckerberg vowed to fix Facebook and I must say I am disappointed in his actions so far. His response to the Cambridge Analytica story was slow and tactical, defensive about the details and silent on the deeper issues to which he and his company’s leadership must pay immediate attention.

I try to be both critical of and helpful to the media and technology industries, pressing news organizations to innovate and seeking to help them explore new business models in my day job, while I try to build bridges with technology companies while also pressing them to face their greater responsibility to society. In that spirit, I expect Facebook to be:

  • Respectful. Facebook needs to respect its users’ rights. I recall — but cannot find — an effort by Facebook in its early days to formulate a crowdsourced constitution for the community. Though I want to see Facebook listen to its users — and there will be plenty of good ideas — the company’s leaders need to propose their own principles to follow for product and business decisions regarding privacy of data above all. It is facile to say simply that we should “own” our data when the issues are more complex, with information about users coming from what they openly share, from their actions and transactions with others, and from inference and extrapolation. But it is possible for Facebook to assure users that they should know what Facebook knows about them; they should know how that information is being used; and they should have the right and means to delete and correct that data. Start there.

Unlike Matthew Yglesias, I do not believe we can — or should want to — back-button our way to a society before and without Facebook or social platforms or the net or for that matter trolls and Russian bots. We must recognize the reality of the world we live in today. We would be wise to take account of the many benefits these advances have brought. And we need to take responsibility together for using these new powers wisely. That includes all the platforms and technology companies and media companies and government — and every one of us.

Whither news?

Posts questioning assumptions, finding opportunities in…

Jeff Jarvis

Written by

Blogger & prof at CUNY’s Newmark J-school; author of Geeks Bearing Gifts, Public Parts, What Would Google Do?, Gutenberg the Geek

Whither news?

Posts questioning assumptions, finding opportunities in journalism

Jeff Jarvis

Written by

Blogger & prof at CUNY’s Newmark J-school; author of Geeks Bearing Gifts, Public Parts, What Would Google Do?, Gutenberg the Geek

Whither news?

Posts questioning assumptions, finding opportunities in journalism

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