It used to be that newspapers received all kinds of letters that we never printed.
The writers would make personal charges about elected officials and members of the local business community. They would make claims about the fluoridation of the water system and communist infiltration of the schools. They would outline how this religion is superior to that religion, or preach that abortion is murder. They would swear.
We never printed any of those letters.
We never printed them because at that time newspapers, and radio and TV stations played the role of gatekeepers. They decided what was “fit to print” as The New York Times motto says. They decided what was appropriate for the readers, for the people, to see.
The biggest arbiter of what we deemed “fit to print” was accuracy. If something was indisputably and factually false, no reputable newspaper would publish it. The other big arbiters were taste and civility. So, you couldn’t threaten your neighbors in the newspaper and you couldn’t tell off-color jokes or stories. Heck, for a long time you couldn’t even use poor grammar.
You can say it wasn’t all roses back then. And the newspapers sometimes got it wrong in deciding what to publish and what not to publish.
There is no doubt that in recent decades many conservatives, and the Republican Party in general, have obsessed about the “liberal media” and “Eastern elites” deciding what is good and true enough for everyone to read. But there were always alternative print publications. And for the last 30 years, there have also been alternative electronic media with the rise of Fox News and AM talk radio.
But whoever the gatekeepers are — the press, the TV networks, the political party (as in China), the Church (as in Rome) — they are going to make judgments about what is appropriate to be distributed to the mass audience. And not everyone will agree with those decisions.
That is not what’s going on with social media today.
Social media, and Facebook in particular, has grown to be the biggest publisher, in some ways the only publisher, in the world that matters. And Facebook is no gatekeeper. In fact, Facebook is just the opposite.
Over the past few months, we’ve had a steady stream of leaks from inside the media behemoth showing exactly what it (along with its all-powerful CEO Mark Zuckerberg), value. And it values power and money.
All the algorithms that govern what Facebook distributes to us every day — what it sends to our news feeds — are created to reward controversy and division, and conversely, to penalize harmony and consensus.
In a way, Facebook is just the latest manifestation of the age-old tabloid newspaper aphorism, “If it bleeds, it ledes.” Except in the old days, if you didn’t like this scandal sheet, you could always switch to another one that perhaps focused less on controversy. Or in recent decades, go to another type of media altogether. And while metropolitan tabloids have always tended toward sensationalism, community papers have usually reflected a gentler standard that prevailed in small places where people know their neighbors personally.
Nowadays, however, newspapers, TV and radio — all forms of communication, really — must sell their wares on Facebook or else be invisible to large chunks of the audience.
This is so even for a small publication like The New Bedford Light, and even for a local writer like myself, whose maximum geographic readership might have a ceiling of the 200,000 or so people who live in Greater New Bedford.
Facebook amplifies my potential readership — not only by the 1,000 or so followers I have on my personal page, but by the thousands more who come to The Light’s website through its social media accounts, including Twitter. Facebook allows my columns to be shared, and shared again, including to other media outlets that link to The Light’s content from their websites and social media. (The Light, by the way, allows comments on its social media accounts but removes those flagged as blatantly false, defamatory or obscene.)
But unlike in the old days — and by old days I’m talking about 10 or 15 years ago — my editors and I are no longer in complete control of what we publish about my column, or any news stories I might write for that matter.
That’s because of this pesky little thing called Facebook’s “comments” section after stories. They call it “comments” but a more apt name would be “Trolls Central.”
That’s the place where you place your emoji “likes”; although you may be less inclined to post them now that you’ve learned how Facebook values “angry” emojis five times as much as their “likes.”
But back to my column.
Just in the past few weeks, I’ve had a spate of inaccurate, actually outlandish comments posted on my personal homepage, where I place the news columns I write twice a week.
I’m not going to name the names of the posters, and certainly not going to repeat their inaccurate posts. But they are a problem.
By posting after my Facebook columns, these folks, if they are irresponsible, are essentially hijacking my 1,000 followers for their own missile-like messages, and many of them are not only inaccurate, they are half-baked, off-the-cuff cracks.
So, no matter how careful I might be in the column to remain responsible and professional, it doesn’t matter. Because the “letters to the editor” section (which is what Facebook comments sections really are) does not belong to me. They belong to Facebook, and I’ve just agreed to Facebook’s rules in order to distribute my column with them.
One recent poster made two demonstrably false posts about a local charter school in a single morning. He was then joined in conversation about that inaccurate information by a second poster. A third poster put up a comment about the school that was protected opinion, but it was so close to an opinion without a basis in any known facts, that it might as well have been inaccurate.
Now, you might say, why don’t you just take those posts down, Jack. Facebook gives you that power. And I do take them down occasionally and I do respond to them with a more factual rebuttal on other occasions.
But that approach always leaves me uncomfortable. Because engaging with irresponsible writers elevates them to the level of the professional journalist. And it, in effect, makes me part of the Facebook algorithm’s controversy pipeline.
When we would run letters to the editor in the newspaper, we would “vet” those letters, calling the writer’s home to try to verify that the authors were real people, trying to negotiate with them to remove defamatory things that they might have written in the letters.
Once in a while, a fake letter would get past the gatekeepers, either through someone misrepresenting their identity or plagiarism. But it was the exception to the rule. There was a process that prevented irresponsible comments from being widely distributed.
There is no vetting process with Facebook’s comment sections. So, lots of stuff gets through every day — no, every hour. And then the only decision is which ones to take down, which ones to correct and which ones, sad to say, we have to live with.
Please don’t misunderstand me. There is an upside to Facebook providing this powerful platform to distribute ideas and thoughts from all kinds of people, who never before had a powerful soapbox. That’s a good thing.
But Facebook — or Meta, as it is now being rebranded — has gone to the other extreme. It’s the wild, wild West on the platform, even back here in the East on Buzzards Bay.
Mayor Jon Mitchell himself, in his State of the City address last week, made a plea for local people to be more polite on social media, to give their social media “friends” the benefit of the doubt and to not immediately resort to wars of words.
Those are nice thoughts, but they seem almost quaint in light of the kinds of violence and social ferment we’ve seen this media giant foster just since the beginning of this calendar year.
It’s going to take something more than a plea for civility, I fear.
Contact Jack Spillane at email@example.com.
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