-By Tom Lamia
The Medium Is The Message
I was reminded of the practical effect of the changing seasons yesterday when I visited the very small South Bristol, Maine, post office to dispatch certified mail. There were three of us there, not including the dutiful and pleasant Peggy the postmistress. Having room for only two customers at a time, I waited outside for my turn. This provided opportunity to hear through the open door to the operations center, the postal purposes of the others. Both were there to make arrangements for the forwarding of mail to a fall, winter and spring address far to the south. Peggy knew each of these customers well so the ritual was being performed with efficiency and good humor. My mind began to turn to the varying life situations of my neighbors in South Bristol and throughout coastal Maine where the social and economic situations of summer visitors and full year residents vary dramatically. As I eavesdropped I mused about the likely silo effect of these differences on social conversation between these communities. As a former New Yorker and long time summer resident before my professional retirement ten years ago transitioned me to full time resident, I had confidence that the conversation topics of summer visitors and local residents were different both in subject matter and tone. I knew this but I also knew that I was not fully a part of either category. Being from away I could not aspire to true intimacy with my fellow Mainers born and bred here in Maine. Did this, I wondered, make a difference in what locals and visitors heard, thought and knew to be true?
I concluded that, yes, it did. In this context at least social and economic differences are a near total barrier to fully candid conversation about life causes such as family and politics. This barrier is summed up in the expression “from away,” a barrier that several years ago came to my mind when I wrote the first of these columns. The venerable “from away” tag line is used to make note of “stranger to our way of life” status anywhere in Maine. Its use separates locals from visitors of course but it goes well beyond in that it is both impermeable and porous. It does not connote hostility, only distance. It means simply that the person from away comes from a different world of upbringing, ambition and circumstance. When two locals meet to discuss an issue each will understand the other uncritically and will be disposed to help with the issue. With a person from away the local will hope for a useful response on the issue, but does not expect one—the cultural gap being supposed too great a leap.
At town meetings, where school, police, fire control, roads, buildings, sanitation and construction of all kinds, are debated and decided, those from away are seldom in attendance; these issues generally do not concern them and their involvement may be resented.
This parable has resonance in the current expression of “having skin in the game.” There is an obvious logic to staying in your lane on subjects that have a differing effect on those who may be involved. This seems innocent enough; harmless and reasonable. But if these differences are shaped by limits to the debate that exclude the viewpoints of others and magnify and distort the appeal to your interest, then you might see the issue as one that is veering into your lane and needful of your support. The issue has entered your silo by being defined in your terms. This is what social media can do, and does, to get and maintain your interest.
Websites such as Facebook and Twitter use the Internet as a channel to enormous populations of users. That speaks well of their technical innovation and entertainment acumen. These are good things. The need for regulation of social media once focused principally on market control. That time has not passed but gains in cyber technology have led to a greater need for regulation. Patent and other intellectual property protection have stimulated progress and rewarded investors. The companies that comprise social media are legally entitled to the protection from competition that has nurtured them. Arguably we all benefit from protected innovation—that is not my issue here. The harm is in the algorithms used to control the consumer’s use of the platform. In essence, these algorithms can, with extraordinary precision, identify what the customer likes and with that information provide more of the same. Users are herded into sites that echo their interests. Gore, lust, gossip, political extremes, disinformation, anything at all that can be found in cyberspace, can be provided. Ad revenues from purveyors of the stuff that titillate users fund these algorithms. The only controls that protect the public interest are the screening devices used by the owners of the sites. I hope I can be forgiven for pointing out that one who profits from an activity is not likely to effectively control it. Ads that target the psyche of the user are profitable and are not themselves regulated.
What I see from this allegory about social media and silos of interest is that, perhaps without noticing, our political conversations have become conversations with only the like minded. To a shocking degree our historical capacity to govern ourselves has fallen victim to hearing only what we want to hear and it is being made available to us through social media.
Cable and broadcast news no longer do their own reporting. When presented, the news is qualified by its source (““the New York Times is reporting that . . .”). The advocacy media provides only what favors their point of view (Fox News, MSNBC and others of varying levels of responsibility). What is known as mainstream media is pilloried for its failure to subscribe to the varied viewpoints of political candidates and causes. The opportunity to hide in your silo of like-minded people is being expanded more or less constantly by recourse to anonymity and the related ratcheting up of howls and screeds of intolerance of any point of view but one’s own. What is the harm?
The harm is in the resulting chaos in the marketplace for ideas. The manipulation of truth is the vehicle of chaos and our political welfare is the innocent victim.
This says nothing about who is right or wrong in the direction that the conversation has taken; it says everything about the destruction of the medium of messaging that sustains our democratic society. Without reliable factual evidence there is no informed voting populace. Without penalties for lies, manipulation of truths and a heightened regard for clear statement, we cannot stop the slide to chaos that we are now experiencing.
What penalties? For a start it is worth noting that there is a notion out there in the conversation that the First Amendment protects any speech at all and is particularly applicable to political speech. That is not true and never has been true. Defamation laws (libel and slander) apply to political speech. The press has protections against false statements made about political and public figures without actual malice. This is not in the Constitution; it comes from case law, the purpose of which is to protect political speech, not to remove its bounds of truth.
To follow up on this theme, it is long past time to hold any platform using the Internet to reach the public responsible for its content. I fail to see the logic or legal justification for treating these platforms any differently from the press. Our constitutional protections for a free press are time-honored despite an often-reckless past. One person’s reckless behavior is another’s investigative search for wrongdoing and correction. Today the Internet is the press. The FCC is restrained by 47 U.S.C. § 230 from holding social media platforms accountable for what comes from their users. To continue to allow an Internet-based social media to be shielded from responsibility by this law is wrong and harmful; it needs repeal, but chances are that democracy will die before a Congress dependent on the largesse of social media campaign financing will vote for repeal.