Moral & Social

Vacated and diminished, these roles actually more important and necessary than ever

Moral & Social

One of the more insidious Silicon Valley attitudes that has infected scholarly and scientific communications is the notion that “free speech” means no controls on what is promulgated by authors, funders, companies, politicians, or information professionals — basically, by anyone who pays. To Silicon Valley and its current dominant ad-driven business model, more information is always better — it’s all about scale, velocity, targeting, and domination — because it means more people paying to put information out and target information consumers. From Google to Facebook to YouTube, this attitude has created wanton information behemoths that have been associated with numerous social and moral ills because they don’t take their moral or social roles seriously.

Earlier this month, I published a post asking if publishers are partners with authors, or their servants, and comparing the selectivity of publishers with the selectivity of librarians. (This post was similar to one from 2012 in “The Scholarly Kitchen,” when the Chefs discussed whether publishing was a service business or a products business.) Along with the professionalism of the practitioners of library science, the economics of libraries has preserved selectivity — it’s expensive to acquire information in a library setting, so picking and choosing is a necessity. Even at that, innovations like Google have taken the library out of the discovery equation almost entirely, circumscribing the role and influence of these professionalized information spaces.

There are other dimensions to publishing and information management, some that we have been almost programmed to ignore. I’ve fallen into this trap myself, defining publishers in purely business terms — taking on risk for authors — and forgetting that publishers (and librarians) have an essential social and cultural role.

This role is at best infrequently acknowledged, and may be suffering from outright neglect. Over the past 20 years, more publishers have become focused on the quantity of content they produce and the efficiency with which they produce it. Terms like “author services” have become fashionable while readers have been reduced into usage data and clicks.

The central question revolves around the standards publishers and libraries represent, what firewall functions they enforce, and what they do to shape culture and society. If speech is paid before publication, that changes the dynamics in a way that feeds Silicon Valley philosophical tenets — pay to play, money up-front, no responsibility beyond platforming.

Given that “politics is downstream from culture, and culture is downstream from information,” selectivity and prioritization seem more vital than ever. As publisher and library moral and social roles have been eroded and subverted, we’ve seen what feels like a parallel degradation of the public square and popular discourse. False equivalencies, arguments over what is a “fact,” the easy spread of misinformation, and the rise of demagoguery all seem to be filling the vacuum.

Mark Zuckerberg personifies publisher abdication. When responsibility rears its head, he consistently runs the other way, straight into his bank vault to hug his money. In a sign that trouble is getting closer to home, Facebook employees are starting to go beyond private grousing about the moral cipher that is Facebook, publishing a letter recently that read in part:

. . . we’re worried we’re on track to undo the great strides our product teams have made in integrity over the last two years. We work here because we care, because we know that even our smallest choices impact communities at an astounding scale. We want to raise our concerns before it’s too late.

Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing.

Misinformation affects us all. Our current policies on fact checking people in political office, or those running for office, are a threat to what FB stands for. We strongly object to this policy as it stands. It doesn’t protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.

Allowing paid civic misinformation to run on the platform in its current state has the potential to:

— Increase distrust in our platform by allowing similar paid and organic content to sit side-by-side — some with third-party fact-checking and some without. Additionally, it communicates that we are OK profiting from deliberate misinformation campaigns by those in or seeking positions of power.

— Undo integrity product work. Currently, integrity teams are working hard to give users more context on the content they see, demote violating content, and more. For the Election 2020 Lockdown, these teams made hard choices on what to support and what not to support, and this policy will undo much of that work by undermining trust in the platform. And after the 2020 Lockdown, this policy has the potential to continue to cause harm in coming elections around the world.

The 250+ signatories go on to outline standards and guardrails that are eminently reasonable and normal, highlighting the vacuousness of Zuckerberg’s policies in that things like these need to be articulated. The letter ends with a whimper, however:

We are proud of the work that the integrity teams have done, and we don’t want to see that undermined by policy. Over the coming months, we’ll continue this conversation, and we look forward to working towards solutions together.

This is still our company.

Their house is on fire, the “social” of Facebook is essentially amoral/immoral, and the lassitude of the ending of the letter doesn’t reflect any level of urgency. However, the letter gets a lot of things right — Facebook, as a publisher, has a lot of power when it decides what to publish and promote. (And don’t let them fool you, they are a publisher — they’re just really bad at it.) They prefer paid speech, and seek to protect it. “Free speech”? That’s just what they call it.

Meanwhile, in a parallel development, Twitter yesterday announced that it will not be accepting political ads for the 2020 US Presidential election — a total moratorium. This has led to predictions that Facebook will follow suit by Thanksgiving. While laudable, this also reflects another bothersome trait of Silicon Valley — binary thinking, and an apparent inability to handle nuance. These platforms either have to accept all political advertising, or none. There are reasons for this — they can’t be seen as behaving as normal media companies, with screening and approval of content on a selective basis, or they risk losing their legal protections as platforms — but these reasons are fundamentally invalid and need to be addressed by updated regulations and greater social responsibility by the publishers — Twitter, Facebook, Google — in question.

One of the complaints from Facebook employees is when they note the difference between free speech and paid speech. That’s an interesting point. Standing down from a moral and social role to a purely financial role allows monied interests a clearer path into society. This is a risk with businesses run by fees garnered by author payments, sponsor payments, and other ways money can be used to shuttle content into publications and libraries. Standards around quality, logic, accuracy, professionalism, responsibility, and accountability interfere with a straight line from wallet to reader. These “interferences” or “barriers” or “hurdles” are part of a broader social and moral role and responsibility, I’d argue. Money shouldn’t equal power, but business models are morphing so that the two are more aligned all the time.

In some cases, the alignment is pure poison. Ronan Farrow’s new book, “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators,” details how a publisher accepted money to squelch stories, an equally repugnant act to accepting money to spread misinformation. It also tells the story of how NBC colluded with the publisher of the National Enquirer and Harvey Weinstein to blunt and divert information that might prove damaging.

Truth to power has been a main role for publishers, libraries, and other media organizations. Allowing power to override truth and degrade the quality of our social discourse is morally and socially irresponsible. Someone needs to act as a check on power and money.

I’m more convinced than ever that part of what will help elevate again the value of publishers and libraries are exactly these elements, which nobody else can provide — high standards, excellence, and the pursuit of quality over quantity.

Are we going to abdicate our social and moral role? Or accept it, and wear it with pride?

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