F. Scott Fitzgerald famously stated “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Healthy debate and freedom of expression are engrained in the history and very soul of our republic. They move our nation forward. Yet some are afraid of contrary opinions. Perhaps it makes them doubt their own beliefs or introduces chaos into their false sense of security. Or maybe it’s just an ego thing – your basic “I’m right and you’re wrong” discussion stopper. Yet, as FDR said in his first inaugural address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
That’s why I found the recent news concerning Facebook’s reported (and now confirmed) suppressing of conservative news and the Senate opening an inquiry into this so unsettling. The story itself shouldn’t come as a surprise. Indeed, Facebook has previously admitted to manipulating member newsfeeds and to taking political positions in association with its founder – on vaccines, guns, etc. In the world of media they are hardly alone in such acts. Media titans regularly exercise their rights to slant the messages their empires publish. Simply the mention of outlets like CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, WSJ or the New York Times, can cause frowns or raised eyebrows from the right or the left.
But politicizing social media is the antithesis of the definition of the medium. Social media titans were previously in the censorship business only as a means to self-regulate and remove haters, stalkers and law-breakers. Something is changing, and it behooves us to pay close immediate attention.
Social media isn’t about minding and manipulating the political opinions of others. It is about providing the freedom for people to express themselves, connect with others, and share what they believe is relevant information as long as they abide by the law and the terms of service of the site they are on.
Imagine a USA where our information is filtered and we only get to see what our leaders – or in this case, business leaders of social media – decide we should see. That sounds like China or Russia; not the USA.
There’s irony here. Facebook has rallied with most of Silicon Valley against the federal government’s desire to monitor the content of its users. Yet by censoring law-abiding content that was requested by or sent by members and groups willfully connected, Facebook is boxing in our freedoms and attempting to shape the permissible dialogue in our “free” society.
We’ve been subtly subject to social media content manipulation for some time. Most of that has been motivated by advertising revenue. Companies pay to get a better position on user timelines. It’s become increasingly annoying and is solely profit-driven, such as in the recent cases of Twitter and Instagram tweaking their formerly impartial algorithms and making them partial in the model of Facebook. The debate there is more about who the customer is for these companies: we the people, or they the advertisers. Politicizing content manipulation is a different algorithm, minimizing self-expression and muting the rich diversity of opinions – the very benchmarks of democracy that lead to improvements in our society.
Facebook was a proud but now tainted American creation, and here in the USA we encourage the exchange of ideas and the freedom to disagree, and we fight wars to bring those freedoms to the rest of the world.
Salmon Rushdie eloquently posed, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” Let’s cherish and nurture what our Founding Fathers created for us, and respect the rights of all law-abiding citizens using social media technology to choose what they want to send and receive without politically or commercially motivated manipulation and censorship. This is one of the reasons I founded MeWe. I can function just fine with two opposed ideas in my mind at the same time – as can most of us.