The truth is more nuanced. Cook is seeking a technological solution, something that scales, against what he sees as a human problem. Passing along lies may be “your prerogative” but it is the medium’s responsibility to slow the spread of lies and take action against persistent liars.
This is a hard truth the Internet industry is just waking up to, in the Age of Trump.
CrossCheck, a system for flagging fake news in France, which holds a Presidential election this spring, is Version 1 of the emerging solution. It’s important to note, however, that it’s just Version 1. Leading companies must undertake an open source process before a real solution can be implemented.
The big difference between our era in American history and those that came before is that the industry which dominates our economy also created the dominant medium. Most Americans now get their news through social media, through Web sites that deny categorically they are even media companies.
The result is a media landscape that can easily be gamed. Russia gamed it. Donald Trump is the result.
This is forcing Internet companies to act.
The First Amendment is a wonderful thing, but it is a double-edged sword. Religions have complete freedom to preach and spend any money they get, but they are supposed to stay out of politics. Press owners can write whatever they wish about government, but they must also stand behind it in a libel court. You can say what you want, but don’t shout fire in a crowded theater.
American law separates medium and message. Phone companies are held harmless for what people say on their phones. All responsibility goes to the speaker, not the hall. But the Internet doesn’t work that way. Much of it is a broadcast medium, with different rights and responsibilities.
The firing of PewDiePie by the YouTube unit of Google, allegedly for antisemitism, is an early indication of what is to come on that score.
The Danish video star isn’t being fired from the Internet. It is only his business agreement with Google’s YouTube Red that has been cancelled. it’s no different than 1,000 other “scandals,” both real and imagined, that have turned video stars into has-beens since the 1950s.
But precedents can easily be extended by public pressure. What about advertising contracts with controversial personalities? What about advertising contracts with fake news sites? What about hosting contracts?
The criminal class knows where this leads. We have geographic censoring because Internet gambling isn’t legal everywhere. Groups on the ragged edge – gamblers and pornographers – have created their own, alternative networks in response to censorship. The Darknet is itself another response to selective prosecution of content.
But anti-crime crusaders have penetrated the Darknet, and the game of cops-and-robbers we’re all familiar with in the real world is now being played out online. This does not mean that the Web is being effectively policed, any more than Chicago cops have stopped murder. It means cops are on the case.
Taking responsibility for what the larger public sees is tricky. Arabs and Chinese censors don’t entirely prevent people from thinking about sex or the local regime. But they do make it harder. Those who engage in prohibited thoughts know to be careful. The public discourse is kept quiet, and will remain so until it explodes in revolution.
Americans don’t even demand this much control over what happens online, although media people know they stand on a slippery slope when they call for a ban on anything. What is imposed by Google and Facebook based on the good of the community could be ordered by Trump or his designees for the good of their own power.
We have precedents, in American history, for all of this. Those calling this an either-or proposition, who are predicting the end of civilization on Twitter, are overdoing it.
American legislators prohibited criticism of the government and imprisoned people who did it, in 1798. Abraham Lincoln went after Confederate propaganda, FDR went after Nazis, and the blacklist era, while terrible, was survived. Maybe we are facing something like that in our future. The point is we’ve been here before, and won.
Here is the financial problem at the heart of all this.
In the age of the Internet, media doesn’t scale as well as advertising does, and advertising drives the medium. It’s where the money is.
The broader your content, the less it brings from advertisers, even as it becomes common currency. This is an “inverse square” law I learned 40 years ago, at Northwestern. A fat newspaper, with tons of content, might cost 50 cents, a thinner magazine with a broad but intellectual audience might cost a few dollars, while a newsletter with a very select audience might cost hundreds of dollars a year. It seemed that the less content you gave, the more specialized you were, the more you could charge for it.
This is still true. It’s why even so-called mass market “newspapers” like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have become, in effect, newsletters. If you have a paywall, if you’re demanding people hand over money to read your content, you’re a newsletter.
This is something those who care about “news” still haven’t grasped. The only way to make a living in content today is to specialize, then find a way to get people to pay for full access. Few take the trouble of building a “registered but not paid” tier, with the equivalent of qualification cards that would make valuable readers available to their specialized advertisers. But that’s coming.
Still, the broader problem remains. Broadcast outlets generally don’t act like newsletters, and since the Web for them is still ancillary to their survival they don’t have paywalls. The general interest, what is thought to be true and mainstream, is not being policed, and the so-called “responsible” media has abandoned the field by becoming newsletters.
The solution, Cook says, is software, but the software must be shared among those with power if it’s to be effective.
This puts responsibility back onto sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Google. Policing the “Free Internet” is a growing cost of doing business, and it’s a cost that can’t be recouped, either by raising ad rates (which are already on the floor) or demanding cash from readers (becoming newsletters). That’s why they want software to do it.
We have already seen the cost of doing nothing. Trump is the cost of doing nothing. If the owner of media disclaims responsibility, others will seize it, to the detriment of the community, and the destruction of the fortunes built by it.
Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon.com need to treat fake news as seriously as they would a heart attack. Let this concentrate their minds, if nothing else will. You have $2.5 Trillion of market cap on the line.