When I was in high school, my father was a teacher there. It was a big school in a small town, and he warned me often about how rumors and gossip spread like wildfire through the school. He warned me not to believe anything I heard through the grapevine until it was confirmed by people who were directly involved. He was right. I heard all sorts of untruths from people who genuinely believed what they were passing along (because they believed the source who told them). Some of these things were hurtful and reputation-damaging for the subjects. Most were likely unintentional and happened when an originally truthful story “spun out of control.” A few were likely started intentionally by people who intended harm.

Judge blocks U.S. officials from tech contacts in First Amendment case. (Washington Post, July 4, 2023)

This is human nature. It’s a basic function of survival—for social animals like us—that we listen to each others’ stories and learn from them to further our own welfare. It’s pretty good for steering ourselves away from things that aren’t good for us: spoiled food, predators, natural hazards, unreliable people. But it isn’t very reliable. It’s especially not reliable for anything involving reputation and social order because it’s so easily manipulated by individuals seeking social power.

For most of the 20th century, American news media—first newspapers then television news—were relied on for organizing society. For the most part, they did a decent job of it because they relied on their reputations for survival. People trusted news from the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, ABC News, and CBS News. People trusted them because news sources that spread lies were discredited by the others and didn’t survive, or ended up with limited audiences (and advertising revenue).

Today’s social media is very different. The sources we “follow” are our family, our friends (there are both genuine friends and “friends” we may never have met in real life), and the personalities we follow. These sources have no financial interest in maintaining a reputation for reliability. These people aren’t sharing stories as a business, they’re sharing things they heard and think their “friends” want to hear. The social media services (Facebook, YouTube, Tic Toc, etc.) get advertising revenue whether the stories you see are true or not, because they aren’t the source. If something your friend posts on Facebook posted turns out to be untrue, you blame your friend, not Facebook. News stories are copied and reposted so many times that the original sources are obscured, so blame is hard to pin on anyone. So it’s back to rumors and gossip, just like in a small-town high school.

Can rumors and gossip maintain social order for a country of 350,000,000+ people? I don’t think so. We’re seeing the cracks in the walls already. If we are going to maintain a social structure in which hundreds of millions of people can share a common sense of identity, we’re going to need a better, more reliable media system than today’s social media.

This is why I’m in favor of some form of regulation for social media. I don’t claim to know what kind of regulation we need. But I feel pretty strongly that the voices opposed to any kind of regulation are either dangerously unaware of how this threatens our national identity, or are dangerously aware of it.

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