Pattern Matching

How to Start Fixing Social Media

The first step is agreeing on exactly what it is — and what we want it to be

Will Oremus
Published in
7 min readJan 16, 2021


And yet they did. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

This was a week of pointing fingers. As the dust cleared from the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and Donald Trump was re-impeached (early candidate for word of the year), many blamed the social media platforms on which his most rabid supporters organized. Critics on the left said they failed to take timely action against Trump, QAnon, and Stop the Steal groups; the right blamed them for taking action at all.

Finger-pointing in itself might not seem all that productive. But the debate over exactly what role the platforms played in fomenting political violence, and what they could have done differently, has the potential to be clarifying. Academics and technologists are now weighing with fresh urgency social media reforms that could redefine how we interact in online spaces — if we can ever reach consensus on what those reforms should be.

The Pattern

From assigning blame to brainstorming solutions.

Early in the week, Facebook sought to deflect blame for the insurrection at the Capitol onto its rivals. “I think these events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, don’t have our standards, and don’t have our transparency,” Sheryl Sandberg said in an interview with Breakingviews’ Gina Chon on Monday. That’s not exactly true, as the Washington Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin and CNN’s Brian Fung and Donie O’Sullivan pointed out — research and watchdog groups found extensive organizing activity on Facebook leading up to Trump’s rally — but it is in keeping with Facebook executives’ penchant for defensiveness.

For its part, Twitter took its lumps and introspected. “While there are clear and obvious exceptions, I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation,” CEO Jack Dorsey said in a somber thread about the suspension of President Trump’s Twitter account. “And a time for us to reflect on our operations and the environment around us.”

One smaller network, Parler, became the consensus scapegoat and was booted not only from Google and Apple’s App Stores, but also by its cloud