Nearly 75 years ago, United States President Harry S. Truman put a sign on his desk which simply said: “The buck stops here.”
The sentiment was a healthy one, and the sign became legendary. It meant that responsibility for all failures would ultimately land with him – that as the leader of the nation, he would not try to dodge criticism by ‘passing the buck’ to someone else.
Were he alive today, Truman would struggle to find such a plain (and, one would think, obvious) virtue in evidence within the corridors of power. As we will see, finger-pointing, misinformation, and deflection are far more common in our current environment – with consequences that are beginning to derange the institutions tasked with keeping order and balance in society.
This bi-partisan erosion of responsibility has been more pervasive in some countries than others, but the cultural forces that drive it are seemingly a permanent feature of the world we now inhabit. Finding a way to reverse course is a matter of urgency – not only because we have real problems to solve, and need healthy ways of communicating to address them, but because it is intolerable to live on a ship whose captains and officers spend their time screeching at each other.
One recent episode revealed much that is wrong with our public discourse, while also shining a light on an important new debate surrounding the role and (yes) responsibility of social media platforms as they relate to political advertising. Mark Zuckerberg’s trip to Washington in late October was fascinating for all that it revealed about our current political culture, while also showing with crystal clarity just how far we still have to go before our collective fever finally breaks.
Platform wars: The phantom menace
The eagerness of many lawmakers to lay all of the country’s problems at Facebook’s door was on full display last month. There was much speculation ahead of Zuckerberg’s testimony regarding several key issues – among them Facebook’s new Libra cryptocurrency and its potential effect on society; concerns about international actors using the platform to influence the upcoming US election; how Facebook polices hate speech; whether it should be regulated like a utility or broken apart like a monopoly; whether its abysmal record on user privacy can be redeemed; and whether the social network should take a more proactive role in combating intentionally deceptive posts.
Instead, we got a circus. The clips below must simply be seen to be believed.
Unless you keep a running tab of all the gays you know you’re a homophobe. https://t.co/kPTNUkeqk7
— Dave Rubin (@RubinReport) October 23, 2019
I am so freaking confused why the same grandstanding Democrats went into the hearing with Mark Zuckerberg with a plan to blame him for all the world's problems, including poverty & racism.
I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. DC is a damn CLOWN SHOW.pic.twitter.com/a7XeLzoK7T
— Jason Howerton (@jason_howerton) October 24, 2019
Democrat Rep. Joyce Beatty (OH) gets nasty with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: “You have ruined the lives of many [African-Americans]”
What on earth is she talking about?
This is insane pic.twitter.com/ugViEELGRO
— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) October 23, 2019
Whatever these lawmakers thought they were articulating, the takeaway message for many observers was that Washington remains utterly unqualified to perform useful regulatory oversight over Silicon Valley – or even interact with tech companies in a meaningful and constructive way.
The size and influence of Facebook, together with its ability to be gamed by malicious actors, require mature and considered multi-lateral discussion. Yet instead, we seemed to be seeing a dry run for a future in which politicians who don’t get what they want simply point their fingers at Mark Zuckerberg and assign all the blame to him.
Not that it’s all his fault, of course. We must not forget about that other threat.
Every story needs a good villain
After years of wild turbulence, those seeking a return to normalcy in US politics may be expecting a resurgence of traditional concepts like restraint, accountability, and self-determination.
Fortunately, Hillary Clinton has just stepped forward to remind us that The Russians have plotted against us before, and continue their dastardly scheming at every moment. Antiwar presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard and former Green Party candidate Jill Stein are agents or dupes of those pesky Russians, according to the former first lady.
Perhaps the late senator Joseph McCarthy was onto something.
Clinton’s claim was treated with due disdain across the nation’s political spectrum; a particularly astute reaction appeared on CNN right after the accusation was made. CNN, however, neglected to mention that while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, her husband was paid $500,000 to deliver a 90-minute speech in Moscow. Clinton herself also had Ukraine investigate Trump in 2016, which is ironic considering the subject of the ongoing impeachment inquiry. Those in glass houses may find it a better strategy not to throw bricks – especially when their present opponent across the aisle is the world’s most successful brick-thrower.
Nevertheless, Clinton wasn’t finished. Despite running a presidential campaign in 2016 that was widely regarded as tepid and uninspiring, she continues to give speeches (see this entire thread) about how a simple combination of sexism, voter suppression, and The Russians kept her out of office.
It hardly needs to be said that the present occupant of the Oval Office is equally averse to taking any responsibility whatsoever for his myriad failings. What is surprising is that other current Democratic candidates seem to also be following this template.
Kamala Harris, a notable candidate from California, has made removing President Trump from Twitter her pet campaign issue. Her arguments themselves make little sense; if she is elected president, she can indeed lean more heavily on Twitter to delete Trump’s account – but by that time, Trump will be out of office, and the urgency will be removed anyway.
The only way Harris’s call for action makes sense is if she is tacitly admitting that her story cannot compete with his in today’s social media landscape. Even on a purely tactical level, Harris’s move would seem to be destined for failure. If your goal is to demonstrate your ability to lead a nation through difficult times, constantly pleading for the referee to intervene against your opponent just isn’t a good look.
Once again, the failure to take personal responsibility is the consistent through-line in all of these narratives. Harris’s state of California faced one of the worst fires in its history last month, at a time when an important media event happened to be taking place halfway across the country. Harris, sitting California Senator, decided the latter was more worthy of her attention.
When California, the state you represent, is on fire and you hardly care. pic.twitter.com/F1TMuNol2p
— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) November 3, 2019
Luckily (?), millions of Harris’s constituents were without electricity at that time, fleeing their homes amid mandatory mass evacuations. So they might not have had the luxury of seeing her dance giddily in Iowa on TV.
As a former prosecutor with a reputation for insisting on overly severe sentences, Harris would already seem to have a steep hill to climb as a Democratic presidential candidate in today’s climate. Yet despite her odd tactics and behavior in recent months, Harris has been able to clearly determine the true cause of her campaign’s fading appeal. It turns out that her actions are blameless and that the real culprits are actually sexism and racism within her own Democratic party.
Apparently, the same party that enthusiastically vaulted Barack Obama to two terms as president is not ready for a minority candidate this time around.
Other candidates, like current frontrunner Joe Biden, seem to be shooting themselves in the foot every chance they get. As they continue living in an analog world, their opponents run circles around them digitally. Perhaps this explains why in the US state where all candidates have spent the most time campaigning, Biden’s popularity is soaring among middle-aged and elderly voters, while receiving only 2% support from voters under 45.
Biden’s weakness has more to do with poor messaging and communications than anything else, but it serves as a perfect example of the larger point: When thinking about how his campaign could improve its fortunes in the months ahead, would you focus on changes that he and his staff could make – or find a way to blame Russia and Mark Zuckerberg?
Zuckerberg as Dr. Frankenstein: Does he fit the role?
Amid the impotent interrogation of Mark Zuckerberg, and the poor choices made by candidates across the political spectrum, key questions remain unanswered. Do sites like Facebook incentivize divisive and provocative content in a way that is detrimental to the fabric of society? Should social networks take it upon themselves to ban advertisements that make false claims? Have companies like Facebook simply gotten too large, to the point that anti-trust action is the best way forward?
Reasonable people can and do disagree on the above questions, making it all the more important to use opportunities like Zuckerberg’s visit to Washington as a chance to have sober, reasoned debate. In the run-up to a major election, a certain amount of grandstanding at such moments is to be expected, even if these tactics are ultimately unhelpful in resolving the questions we now face. Yet every decision that reinforces a political environment driven by emotion rather than facts would seem to be playing directly into President Trump’s hands.
In the spirit of nuanced debate, then, let’s look at these key questions in a bit more detail.
- Does Facebook actually reward outrage and clickbait? Yes – but these are not new concepts. ‘Yellow journalism’ famously thrived on sensationalist headlines as far back as the 19th century, while the tabloids of the next hundred years carried this particular baton forward to the modern era, enjoying great success as they did so. The term ‘clickbait’ itself was coined in 2006 – far too early to be blamed on sites like Facebook. Social media certainly enables users to act upon human nature, but it doesn’t create that human nature. Besides, even respectable mainstream media outlets (print, TV, and online) have used similarly cheap tactics in the past, and continue to do so. The difference today is that these entities, and their tabloid counterparts, no longer have a monopoly on them.
- Should privately-run social networks be the arbiters of what is or isn’t truthful? This would seem to be each company’s internal decision to make, and not ours; but we will nevertheless explore this issue in depth below. For the moment, however, let us simply consider that insisting on such judgment calls would bestow greater power upon companies like Facebook. In this sense alone, it would seem to be philosophically in opposition to the third question.
- Should the government break up Facebook, on the grounds that it has become too powerful? Capitalism, we are frequently told, works by enabling an environment of healthy competition. Anti-trust law acts as a safeguard to ensure that competitive opportunity remains, even if one entity tries to corner the market. We have weighed in on this issue before, and will simply repeat our take on the situation: Forceful regulation or anti-trust action against Facebook would seem to be warranted at this point, if only for the healthy effect it would have of re-kindling competition within the ecosystem that the media giant presently inhabits.
Question 2) above is trickier, and deserves more attention. The promise and potential of democracy both hinge on the public’s ability to make up its own mind, based on accurate information. If populations can be misled and manipulated by shadowy figures, then – elections or no elections – the effect is the same as having those same shadowy figures running our government for us, and we might as well have no democracy at all.
On the other hand, in today’s polarized cultural moment, do we want to give any centralized actor the power to review two political ads – one which says that the human form has two genders, and another which says that the human form has potentially hundreds of genders – and decide for us which is “true” and therefore which one we are allowed to see? Such decisions could very well change with the times; but whatever decision Facebook (or its fact-checkers) might make in such a case, the company would instantly find itself at the center of a political firestorm, which is exactly where it doesn’t want to be.
Taking responsibility doesn’t always mean being decisive. Sometimes the most responsible thing to do is to step back, recognize your limits, and understand that the solution to a cultural problem may indeed be cultural, rather than corporate.
Yet pressure is unquestionably on Facebook to perform greater oversight regarding the ads it allows on its platform. This debate will likely continue for some time to come, so let’s look closer at these new calls for content filters, where they are coming from, and whether they have merit.
The purpose of Mark Zuckerberg’s aforementioned appearance before the US House Financial Services Committee was ostensibly to give testimony about the company’s planned launch of its Libra cryptocurrency. In an article from October 10th, the Washington Post framed his upcoming visit in the following way:
Facebook announced Libra in June, positioning the cryptocurrency as a tool that will empower the company’s billions of users, particularly those without access to a bank. But in a rare show of bipartisanship, lawmakers have expressed doubts that a company with a track record that includes Cambridge Analytica and other data scandals should be trusted to change the global financial system.
That last point is crucial, as it underscores a point we at Lexicon have made again and again: Facebook itself is a fundamentally amoral entity, confirming repeatedly what we should always assume until we receive evidence to the contrary – that organizations tend to act according to their own incentives, absent outside pressure.
Yet less than a week later (and still before Zuckerberg’s testimony), the same newspaper ran an editorial titled Facebook Shouldn’t Run Trump’s Lie-Laden Ads, which reflected the considered view of its journalists and editors. The piece argued that Facebook should decide which ads its users are and aren’t allowed to see on the platform, based on an evaluation of how true they are to reality.
These contradictory themes – Facebook consistently misuses the power it has, yet we simultaneously insist that it exercise even more power by determining what we users are allowed to see – show up eerily often in mainstream discourse, although the discontinuity between the two positions is almost never acknowledged.
Facebook already has content filters, of course; threats are banned from the site, as are depictions of violent acts, indecent imagery, and the like. But the censorship of ideas is categorically different – a distinction ignored in the editorial, even though the newspaper had only days earlier pointed out that Facebook could be considered too irresponsible an actor to merit playing another important role with societal implications.
The editorial does at least hint at the difficulty of deciding what is ‘false’, when information and insinuation can fall anywhere on a wide spectrum:
The electoral arena has also always played host to hyperbole, and locating the line between permissible exaggeration and unacceptable smear will require some thought. But responsible thinking, plus a hefty helping of transparency and a robust appeals process, is exactly what’s necessary.
Easier said than done. Simple fact-checking has proved to be surprisingly challenging – even for the ‘responsible’ media – with example after example of inexplicable judgments – often by organizations set up explicitly to act as fact-checkers.
Moreover, a debate is guaranteed as to which organizations deserve to have the job of fact-checking under a Facebook-run system. Whoever makes the final cut, the only thing we know for certain is that no one will be satisfied with the full lineup of judges put in charge of content policing.
Incidentally, Facebook already has a content labeling system, tasked merely with labeling information as being either true or misleading – and the company is already receiving criticism for its choice of having certain media entities as judges.
Some of them indeed have dubious qualifications for such a role, but even the ‘adults in the room’ have been unable to fact-check themselves when it really counted. They also bring undisguised bias to their coverage of electoral politics – the very arena in which they would be tasked with oversight.
To support a ‘fact-checking’ filter on certain types of Facebook content is to give these same organizations the power to determine what we can and cannot see. It also gives more power to the very media companies that the internet thankfully allows us to circumvent.
The appeal of social media is partly to be found in its independence. Yes, there are downsides to allowing more noise to get in. But unless we do, we lose an important voice. Consider what we miss when we are content with letting mainstream media companies tell us what to believe.
Wow. Just wow.
This is the single best, most insightful, most inspirational campaign ad of the 2020 presidential election.
— Shaun King (@shaunking) October 4, 2019
Democracy is messy – and we used to be okay with that, because we believed that truth would win in an open battle of ideas. Yet as soon as the internet genuinely opened up the battle of ideas to everyone, we suddenly lost the courage of our convictions. Progressives used to love free speech, hate the establishment media, and be terrified of giving private companies even more power. Today’s left-of-center activists are all but begging the very same media giants to place further restrictions on what we can say, and where we can say it.
Regaining control of the narrative
To insist that Facebook censor certain ideas is to concede that we can’t tell a story good enough to compete with those ideas. Our civilization built great wonders, unlocked the atom, made extraordinary strides in medicine and philosophy, and put explorers on the moon – yet we now cower before the challenge of … storytelling.
Is the story we are presently telling ourselves – that biology has no role to play in sports, everyone is racist, there are over 100 genders, black transgender ‘womxn’ are the backbone of our democracy, actors should only play characters who have the same characteristics as themselves, we must beat up journalists we disagree with (and then blame them for their own injuries), public intimidation and harassment for wrongthink must be universally applied, along with a thousand other obnoxious inanities – so perfect, and such a winning message, that its unpopularity can be explained only by positing that the system is rigged against us?
At long last, could we at least … just for a moment … consider the possibility that the story could be improved? Politics and culture are all about being relatable to average people, yet there is precious little in the previous paragraph that the average person is onboard with. Most of us are not hankering for a return to hardened right-wing governance, but if we fail to denounce the excesses of our own side, then our demands that the other side do so will continue to fall on deaf ears.
Speaking truth about power
Leadership is not a job left solely to those in positions of authority. As citizens in democratic societies, it falls to each of us to step forward and say, “The buck stops here.”
In another time of great polarization, a renowned American journalist once reminded the public that we are not descended from fearful men. Rather than begging government and Facebook to silence our opponents and save us from free speech, we ought to simply regard the challenge before us and rise to meet it ourselves.
The temptation to continue down our current, ill-fated path will be strong indeed. As society grows more complex, so do our problems. The need for nuance is therefore greater than ever – yet it is this very complexity which most easily allows for finger-pointing. Every act has many fingerprints on it, and therefore a wide diffusion of responsibility, letting us easily find blemishes on the other side while simultaneously being blind to our own.
We need a thorough self-accounting, conducted with transparency – warts and all. Only by looking deeply into the mirror, taking it upon ourselves to admit our flaws and become better, can our generation earn the democracy that it seeks to defend. Hiding weakness and pretending at perfection is the epitome of foolishness, particularly in the digital era, as the internet can pick away at a façade the way the traditional media never could.
True strength comes from showing vulnerability, generosity, and humanity. It requires a willingness to learn, even when the answers may be uncomfortable. Above all, it means engaging with the world as it really is, not how we would like it to be.
The following clip from the Danish TV drama Borgen illustrates the power of embracing criticism rather than fighting it – of being honest rather than putting on a fake face – of being a protagonist for a new vision, rather than an antagonist whose sights are aimed merely at burying a hated rival.
If we win battles with shouting and censorship, then we inherently legitimize the use of shouting and censorship as tactics. But there is a better story that we can tell, about who we are and what our values should be as a society. All it takes is for someone to step forward, and show a different path.