Editorial: Facebook and America’s great ‘operational mistake’

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

America basically has turned into an outrage machine, which makes it odd to say that there is one topic that is not producing enough outrage in American discourse.

It is Facebook. The enormously profitable company has evolved from a dumpster fire to an all-out blaze with flames that are creeping up the country’s foundations.

This should be a sentiment that both Republicans and Democrats can agree upon. Take, for instance, what has happened in the small city of Weatherford, Texas, about 60 miles west of Dallas. President Donald Trump won Weatherford’s home county of Parker with more than 80% of the vote in 2016, so it seems unlikely that the police chief of Weatherford is a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party.

That town’s police chief, Lance Arnold, recently told the Washington Post that Facebook was helping create real violence in his community of about 25,000 people. Heavily armed groups are showing up in the community to confront protesters. The groups have been larger and better armed than the town’s police force.

“It’s extremely worrisome, because it creates a level of fear,” Arnold told the Post. “And it creates an environment that is rife for violence between various groups.”

Arnold said it was clear what was stoking the fear. He said there have been numerous “fake social media accounts.” They spread false reports about how a particular community is facing imminent danger, complete with false photos showing such violence. Some falsely claim that the police are asking residents to “come assist us,” Arnold told the newspaper.

If a police chief in one of the reddest counties in America can see the recklessness of Facebook and its cohorts, why can’t more of us?

Friends, this is the equivalent of a print newspaper publishing an anonymous letter to the editor advocating lynchings or destroying people’s property. Why aren’t we as mad as hell about this? The fact it shows up on a computer screen rather than on a piece of pulp makes some sort of difference?

If that doesn’t raise your anger enough, perhaps Facebook’s most recent statement on the unrest in Kenosha, Wis., will. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg publicly acknowledged on Friday that his company should have removed a page for the “Kenosha Guard,” which had been promoting an event listing for “Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property.”

Come to find out, that page promoted violence. Facebook ultimately recognized that and took the page down, but by the time that happened two protesters had been killed in Kenosha. Zuckerberg called Facebook’s failure to remove the page earlier an “operational mistake.”

That is one way to describe a system that monitors content for violent and hateful material after the content already has been published. There is a reason in the newspaper business we edit our articles and letters before we publish them.

Yes, you would be correct in noting that many newspapers, however, take the same backward approach with their online comment sections. There certainly have been hateful and violent statements published in those comment sections too. That should change as well.

The reasons it doesn’t are varied, but can be summarized by stating that companies and individuals often find it difficult to change, even when such change would be good for the country.

That’s where government can help. Let’s not overthink this. We simply need to pass a law that makes Facebook and its ilk — including online comment sections of newspapers — legally responsible for any content that shows up on their sites. Newspapers have lived with that law for their print editions for generations.

Whether Facebook could remains to be seen. Its business model is based on a high volume of garbage. It makes its money off of numbers, not quality, and such a new standard would reduce the amount of content on its site. Facebook’s actual financial value would decline.

That could be financially painful for the entire U.S. economy. Facebook and similar entities make up a very large part of the stock market’s success. But that financial pain likely only gets larger the longer we wait to address this issue. It would have been better to address this problem yesterday. It will be worse to address it tomorrow.

It would be a radical change for the internet. But letting monetized rumor machines operate unregulated seems a bit radical too. Some might even say it is an “operational mistake.”


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