Free speech was a lot simpler a century ago, before the advent of electronic media. If Hank, a local shopkeeper, spoke up at a public meeting or stood atop an apple crate in the town square, you knew exactly how many grains of salt to take with his speech about Woodrow Wilson’s plan for a league of nations.
He was a guy you knew well. He belonged to your church, dated your sister in high school, and sold you household goods at his family-owned store.
You may not even see the 21st century Hank in person. Instead, you’ll see his Facebook post railing about the United Nations, which could in fact be from Hank or a Hank impersonator or someone named Uri sitting in Moscow.
At this time each year, journalists, librarians and many others try to rally public support for access to public information as part of the annual Sunshine Week campaign. It’s important stuff; governments keep secrets from the public all the time. Sometimes the motive is protecting the public safety, but very often denial of access to public records or closing public meetings is about avoiding government embarrassment or just merely because government officials don’t want to be bothered with serving the public.
But the need for transparency can’t stop with government. Even more opaque is the surrogate news and information network provided in the aggregate by social media of all sorts. We embrace social media that can drive our thinking, influence our discussions, and even affect our votes, yet we have very little knowledge of why this particular stream of information is directed our way. It’s like subscribing to a cable television package, but somebody else gets to pick the channels.
Of course, all of this is exacerbated by the fact that millions of Americans are no longer willing to pay for news and information. We can have robust debates about whether America is becoming greater, but it certainly isn’t becoming smarter or better-informed.
This reliance on free social media without understanding the mechanics or potential for manipulation is tremendously dangerous. And social media companies increasingly acknowledge the flaws in their respective services:
►This month, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted, “We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human coordination, misinformation campaigns and increasingly divisive echo chambers. We aren’t proud of how people are taking advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough.”
► In January, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to fix Facebook: “The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do. … We currently make too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools.”
The common denominator in those statements is that bad people do bad things on social media. Fine. But it’s the opaque nature of these companies’ policies and closely guarded algorithms that too often leave their users wondering why they see what they see and who’s pulling the strings.
I’m sure many of us saw posts from Facebook friends last month urging people to respond to a particular post because they had heard that Facebook’s new algorithm would mean that we’ll see only future posts from our 25 closest and most engaged of friends.
It was nonsense, but some of the smartest people you know shared the posts “just in case,” a clear sign that the public has no clue about how Facebook content makes its way to our computers and phones.
In the words of Dorsey last October, “We need to be a lot more transparent in our actions in order to build trust.”
That means clearly stated policies, even-handed enforcement of existing standards and the implementation of better user controls.
It does not mean, however, greater involvement by legislators. There has been enough saber rattling from public officials, the people we should trust least to ensure the free flow of valuable information.
There’s no denying the benefits of social media. Hank’s views can now be shared instantaneously and globally, no longer limited to the folks passing by his apple crate. But the sheer power of this digital marketplace of ideas also means that we need to take less at face value and demand more of those who have so much influence over the way we see the world — and each other. Democracy works best in the sunshine.
Ken Paulson is dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University. He also is president of the First Amendment Center of the Newseum. Follow him on Twitter: @kenpaulson1. This article was first published in USA TODAY.