In 2015, @Jack tweeted: “I think Twitter is the closest thing we have to a global consciousness. And I believe the world needs that right now.” On Monday, the bearded @Jack, otherwise known as Jack Dorsey, quit his job as the CEO of Twitter, apparently having decided that running that thing was no longer much fun.

Forgive us if we don’t have much sympathy.

Being new and novel, the social media channels that now dominate much of our waking hours managed to worm their way into our collective consciousness even as their potentially pernicious effects went unnoticed. Subsequent generations will hold us to account for our folly.

Right from the start, the tech titans at Twitter and Facebook argued that they were not as much a publisher in the sense that the owner of this newspaper is a publisher but more of a public utility: closer to ComEd than the Chicago Tribune, you might say. This has proved to be a con.

By hiding behind a federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the social networks claimed broad immunity from liability for content created by their users; a protection not afforded this newspaper, which always has stood behind the content it chooses to publish on these pages, printed or online.

At the same time, those networks relied on, for their revenue and popularity, the distribution of content from traditional publishers, even as they sold targeted advertising that ate into journalistic business models, hastening the current, well-documented crisis in local journalism. Over time, the networks also delivered oblique algorithms that privileged the sharing of content in their own “skin.” That’s why, on Facebook, many of your favorite independent writers working on Substack and elsewhere have taken to posting their work in the comments. They’ve figured out that linking content from elsewhere in a main post will ding their distribution. This is not exactly a world of net neutrality.

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Much of the illusion of the public utility fell apart once Twitter and Facebook discovered that their users often created duplicitous and hateful content that was deleterious to the United States. Their own users and staffers demanded censorship of this detritus, but they of course did so according to their own political and ideological preferences.

And thus Twitter co-founder @Jack and his friends at Facebook found themselves trying to decide what did or did not count as hate speech, the reasonable limits of privacy, whether high political office (such as, president) implied different criteria, how much people could be trusted to make their own decisions, what was and wasn’t actual news, how much balance is desirable and more.

Tough going, @Jack?

For generations, newspapers such as this one have made similar judgment calls, but they’ve used a staff of professional journalists to do so, not an algorithm. And when mistakes have been made, and they have, those publications have been held accountable by the courts and by their readers. They haven’t hidden under some blather of “global consciousness.”

Mark Zuckerberg has often said he doesn’t think Facebook should be the arbiter of the truth of everything that people say online. But that position is naive and disingenuous. He built a platform for the amplification of opinion with filters set to the interests of his own company; he now is chagrined to be held even remotely accountable.

Things have become so rough for these networks – look at what has happened to the reputations of Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, for example – they are rethinking their positions on regulation and seeing the benefits of governments offering cover. In essence, they’ve been saying, we’re too big, the world is too rough for us to monitor, we need someone else to take the heat in a way that doesn’t mess with our bottom lines.

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The social networks were always publishers, always making editorial choices. They merely used technology and the seemingly benign aspect of so-called user-generated content to hide their curatorial role.

This newspaper is subject to competition. You can subscribe or not. You can choose to get your news and opinion here or elsewhere. This has been true since the middle of the 19th century: The Tribune once competed against a dozen Chicago newspapers, all jostling in the marketplace of ideas.

Free competition is a proven way of limiting power. Public bodies must be wary of regulation of the likes of Twitter and Facebook merely becoming a way for these two entities to duck responsibility and keep a stranglehold on power.

We see the promise of Frank McCourt’s Project Liberty, an effort to create a social network that gives users more control over their personal data. And Donald Trump should be free to create his new TRUTH Social network, just as you should be free to ignore it.

And, no, it’s not the truth – just his truth. As long we all understand that, and make our societal decisions accordingly, no problem.


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