The Protests Remind Us Why Social Media Is Worth Fixing
Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok are distorting our view of a crisis. But they’re also countering the distorted view we had before.
Welcome back to Pattern Matching, OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context.
With protests raging, police violence surging, the pandemic simmering, and the president fanning the flames, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week defended his laissez-faire approach to online speech — and, in particular, to inflammatory posts by President Trump — in a 25,000-person video call with the company’s suddenly restive employees. “The net impact of the different things that we’re doing in the world is positive,” he reassured them, “even if every decision doesn’t go in the way that everyone wants.”
We’re talking about the social network whose most popular content in recent weeks has included the “Plandemic” anti-vaccine conspiracy video, which downplayed the risks of coronavirus, and a video in which the pro-Trump provocateur Candace Owens called George Floyd a “horrible human being.” The idea that it could be a net positive might seem laughable. But Facebook’s critics should not entirely write off the value that it, and platforms like it, provide. The protests show social media at its worst, yes, but also at its best — and understanding both is the key to envisioning what a better social platform might look like.
Consider the role of Facebook, and social media more broadly, in protest movements, including Black Lives Matter. If social graphs and personalization algorithms that show us what we want to see are driving the left and right farther apart, as some research suggests, they’re also turbocharging political agendas that lay outside the old bipartisan consensus, and cracking open the Overton window to fresh ideas. It’s on Facebook, Twitter, and even TikTok that shaky smartphone videos of police brutality are going viral, and once-radical demands such as defunding the police are picking up steam.
Without these platforms, we’d still be totally reliant on a press corps whose demographics and values skew white and upper-middle-class…