Social Media Pollution
A DISCUSSION OFDeciding the Facebook Question
In “Deciding the Facebook Question” (Issues, Summer 2019), Clarke Cooper really digs under today’s debates about regulating the large internet companies (the “FAANGs”) to reveal a much deeper problem with the internet. And that problem, like the classic challenge of all environmental problems, was immortalized by the comic strip character Pogo over 30 years ago: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Yes, Cooper discusses the business shenanigans in which the FAANGs—Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google—are engaged, and notes that better antitrust action and regulation might help address the standard problems that emerge from monopolies and market manipulation. But he shows us that even the strictest government antitrust rules will not address the more fundamental problem of today’s internet: information pollution. By driving the cost of speech, broadcast, and conversation to zero, we have created a system that encourages all of us to dump everything online, act on impulse, and ultimately accept whatever the algorithms tell us our predicted preferences are. Why take the time to think when you can immediately fulfill your initial impulse by pressing a button to “like,” “retweet,” or “1-Click shop?”
Cooper offers two ways to clean up this information pollution and the resulting loss of personal agency. The first would be a technical fix that would reintroduce costs and scarcity into the internet. The second would be through social deliberation that would create something like a constitutional protection for what a person is and what control that person has over his or her identity.
I kept wishing for easier ways. I imagined organizing well-regulated militias of Minutemen (Minutepeople?) armed with apps instead of muskets who would muster to protect our civil liberties, or adopting rules that would force companies to pay for the personal data that we would own and they could only rent. But the first approach requires too many volunteers with little prospect of matching the torrent of information, and the second is just as likely to be subverted when people unthinkingly assent to being monitored in return for an annual $5 discount coupon on their next purchase.
The dynamic unleashed by zero-cost information on the internet seems unstoppable. And it essentially undermines our agency—whether as consumers or citizens. I’m afraid that Cooper is right: asserting our own agency in public deliberation is really the only robust way to confront this threat to, well, our agency. Clearing Pogo’s Okefenokee Swamp of our discarded junk requires us to collectively agree on the rules that we will collectively follow. Clearing the internet polluted by our unthinking behaviors—reposting fake news, letting others make decisions for us, undermining what it is to be a citizen—requires us to collectively agree on the boundaries of personhood that are eroded by all that unthinking behavior. Cooper’s article is a call to start that discussion.