The Fairness Doctrine was a 1949 policy that required holders of broadcast licenses (so TV and radio) to air contrasting views on controversial issues of public importance. It was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1969 but eventually was abolished in 1987 by the FCC commission under the influence of Ronald Reagan. An attempt to reinstate it by Democrat controlled congress was vetoed by Reagan. It was perceived that the doctrine was, in practice, anti-conservative.
Some have argued that this event was the beginning of the partisan broadcast media. Notwithstanding the difficulty of administering a requirement of fairness, I think that it is hard to argue that abandoning the principle even as an aspiration would have no effect on media culture. And Rush Limbaugh’s malign influence seemed to intensify and spread at exactly this time. He would not have been able to broadcast his deliberately provocative nonsense before 1987. Indeed, he got fired from his first radio job at KQV in 1974 for over-stepping the mark.
Was Fox news also a consequence? Some might argue not because as a cable network they are not considered a broadcaster and would not be subject to the doctrine. This however misses the point that if it had not been scrapped the doctrine could, and surely would, have been extended to other media channels; if only there were support for the principle.
Which brings me to Facebook.
The big problem with Facebook is not their market domination. It is not that they are displacing the mainstream media. It is not that they video cast murders once or twice per year. It is not that they censor free speech according to their own quixotic principles. It is not that they fail to remove hateful garbage but allow other nonsense.
The problem with Facebook is their central business model. This model is:
I will keep you on-line for as long as I can using any psychological tricks that our social scientist consultants and data scientists have shown will work. If I can do that then I can maximise the value of selling your sorry arse to our advertisers.
The psychological tricks, it turns out, mainly come down to telling people what they want to hear, making sure that they never hear a dissenting opinion and rewarding them with likes. The FB bubble feels pretty good for those who crave validation. It is the ultimate “safe space” though leftists usually mean something else when they use this term!
Personally, I make a special effort to subscribe to groups and individuals who I will likely disagree with. But unless I can get them to engage with me the FB algorithm will stop showing my posts to them or their post to me. Our entire society is part of a world-wide experiment that never required ethics approval and would certainly have been denied approval by any committee that I have served upon. The subjects are manipulated without being told how and their private data is sold to private companies. And there are almost 3 billion monthly active users. That’s a lot of lab-rats.
So, what is to be done, and how does this relate to the fairness doctrine?
I do not care that much about my private data being sold (so long as I can opt out) or being subjected to ads. Some of the ads are really well targeted. But all the offers from Russian brides are becoming irritating. (Does the algorithm target every 62 year old while male? My status does say I am married!) But I do care that my posts only reach those who have previously agreed with similar posts. And I care that it I rarely see news on my feed that challenges by opinions, even though I have tried to arrange this.
The fairness doctrine required media to “air opposing views on controversial issues”. While Facebook is not a media outlet, there is no reason to limit the principle to the rapidly declining media. It is the principle of diversity of opinion that is important.
The culprit is the algorithm and it cannot be allowed to continue. We cannot suffer this abomination (which one might even consider an emergent AI intelligence) to infect, brainwash and ultimately control every poor sod who is on-line, not with one ideology of course, but with a whole range of equally deranged ideologies. The Maga’s are brainwashed as are the Flat-earthers, the SJW’s, the BLM true believers, the White Supremacists, all with a barrage of alternative facts from alternative universes while that young 36 year old prick Zuckerberg in his skivvy pretends to apologise.
There might be only a few years left when government has the agency to stop this algorithm. Here is how it is done.
- You pass a bill requiring FB and all other social media platforms to reveal all the details of their algorithm to government regulators.
- You require the algorithm to be modified according to the Fairness Doctrine as explained below.
- You compulsorily close, break up, acquire or massively fine companies that show resistance.
The application of the Fairness Doctrine to the algorithm would be as follows. Facebook are easily able to classify people based on their networks. There is the left-right dimension but there are lots of other finer ones: the dimension for authoritarianism; individual versus community; materialism versus spiritualism; national versus global; race blind versus anti-racist.
You do not even have to give the dimensions names. Facebook is already using this kind of machine learning technology. That is how they target the ads and the posts that appear on your news feed. You are a data point in multi-dimensional space. So is every user and FB can see who you are close to and how.
The Fairness Doctrine would require Facebook to deliver contrasting views to your news feed. Maybe you have use 4 dimensions implying 16 polar opposites. You get a feed from the Guardian on refugees because you subscribe. I say that you cannot read another post in the same part of the space until you have read X other posts from contrasting points of view. The next item on your feed might be from the Telegraph on wind turbines killing birds. Then one on Islamic fundamentalism. Then one on Chinese soft power. Then a post from your weird Flat Earther FB friend. You get the idea.
Will users read these posts? They can be required to open them to see anything else new on their newsfeed. No more cat videos or photos of their friends until they look at the wind turbine story. The algorithm might require the page to remain open for at least 60 seconds. FB can monitor this with cookies. They cannot guarantee that you read it of course. Don’t bother sniping about practicalities. This is all possible when one considers what FB does now in the pursuit of brainwash induced profit.
Many people might leave FB for the dark web. But most current users (like you and me I suspect) who mainly post holiday snaps or communicate with friends and relatives about recent events or old school friends about reunions would not. Nor would those who want to use FB to be truly informed about current affairs or communicate their ideas about current affairs. I would really welcome the automatic delivery of diverse news, professional comments and FB friend comments onto my feed because trying to orchestrate this diversity myself is swimming against the tide of FB’s current algorithm.
So who would impose this? Which government would dare to declare war against FB? (No, not Scomo. He has already put us in the firing line once already).
I cannot see it happening in the US. There is too much suspicion of government. Any imposition of diversity would lead to further insurrections, though I hope it is clear from my explanation that I am taking about real diversity, not the bullshit diversity that we hear about on the Drum.
As much as the heavy regulatory hand of the EU worries me, I wonder if they might not be uniquely placed to put a stake in the sand and drive a stake through the heart of the appalling Frankenstein monster that Dr. Sweetmountain has created. (Yes, I over did the metaphors here, but hell I am on a roll). The EU is big enough for FB to comply and the politics would play out much better there than in the US.
I am not a twitter user so I do not know how this plays out on that and other platforms. But the principle is the key. Private companies have no right to create a widely used space where people are deliberately corralled into tiny islands of the political space, where they do not have bad ideas challenged, all for the trivial purpose of keeping them on that tiny island for venal profit.
Is it censorship? No. While it would be imposed by government, I hope it is clear that it is not government censorship. For a start, nothing is banned (over and above current limitations). Does it require judgement of what is fair and unbiased? No. It utilises an empirically revealed definition of diversity of news and comment. Users are forced to explore the existing space of ideas. Sounds good to me. Will it force users towards a view? No. It would automatically draw users towards the empirical middle of the FB universe while making them aware of other parts of the universe.
Interested in people’s thoughts. I have not heard this suggested elsewhere and there may be fatal weaknesses in the idea. But I think there is a growing consensus that social media cannot be allowed to continue in its present toxic form.