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  • Jan Flynn

Can We Play Fair in 2021?

Seeking referees for the Internet and media

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Long, long ago, in the 1990s, we spoke of the Information Highway

Many of us weren’t sure what that meant exactly, but it was going to make life bigger, better, and ever so much more exciting. Unlimited access to information, from everywhere, for everyone! The world at our fingertips! Knowledge, wisdom, and truth would expand our opportunities, our perspectives, our minds. Totalitarian governments wouldn’t stand a chance.

In 1995, William Gibson breathlessly compared the advent of the Internet to the birth of cities:

“It’s really something new; it’s a new kind of civilization. And of course the thing I love about it is that it’s transnational, non-profit — it isn’t owned by anyone — and it’s shape is completely user driven.”

That was a nice dream, wasn’t it?

Twenty-six years later is too soon to declare how the Information Highway turned out, since it’s still under construction. Certainly its effect on our lives can’t be overstated, from the way we work to the way we socialize and even the way many of us find mates. But a glorious, free-form exchange of ideas and viewpoints and increasingly intelligent conversation? Not so much.

In a March 2020 interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, William Gibson lamented that the Internet hasn’t exactly matched the cyberspace he envisioned in his landmark novel Neuromancer:

“Cyberspace, as described in Neuromancer, is nothing at all like the Internet that we live with, which consists mostly of utterly banal and silly stuff.”

We carry in our pockets devices with more computing power than NASA had at its disposal when it sent men to the moon. And what do we do with them? We replace conversations with texts. We Instagram photos of our pets, or our outfits, or our sandwiches. We tweet our opinions into a vortex of echoing beliefs that instantly spews them back at us with increasing vitriol. We’re more easily manipulated than ever.

Does it have to be this way?

Are we helplessly stuck in an echo chamber that serves only to divide us into increasingly narrow and hysterical factions? It’s a process that makes us all into tools of a system in which our attention is the prime commodity. When media conglomerates and internet behemoths like Facebook and Twitter operate with virtually no responsibility for their content, anything goes as long as it rivets our eyeballs and our brainwaves.

Today’s news outlets and today’s Internet mean everybody gets their own truth. And they don’t trust anybody else’s.

Meanwhile, totalitarian governments haven’t gone anywhere. Authoritarianism feeds on the energy of splintering factions and mistrust, offering a weird balm, a mixture of anger, victimization, and certainty as a bulwark against the terrifying worldview swirling outside our separate spheres. Our only sense of safety lies in our ability to pigeonhole those on the outside: Republicans, Democrats, MAGA-hat-wearing rednecks, cancel-culture libtard snowflakes.

Remember the Fairness Doctrine?

Established in 1949, the FCC Fairness Doctrine was a policy that governed radio and expanded to include television. Since broadcast licenses were limited, the idea was to prevent license holders from communicating only their points of view. It wasn’t an equal time rule: stations had broad leeway in how they instituted it. But they were required to devote some of their time to discussing matters of public interest, including controversial ones, and to do so in a manner that was balanced and that considered more than one side.

The point was to expose viewers or listeners to more than one (narrow) point of view. The underlying assumption was that this was a good thing for civil discourse, for society, for democracy. The policy didn’t say how the different viewpoints had to be presented: they could be opinion pieces, editorials, news segments, public affairs broadcasts — it was up to the outlets.

The Fairness Doctrine, in its day, had broad support. The ACLU was in favor of it. So was the NRA. The Supreme Court upheld it in a 1969 case, Red Lion Broadcasting v FCC. So what happened? Very long story short, the 1980s anti-regulation Reagan Revolution happened to it. At the same time, the Information Highway promised unlimited access to unlimited perspectives, thus eliminating the concern about public opinion being skewed by a few, powerful special interests.

So here we are, without a whistle

In the vast game of Grab The Attention played out 24/7 on social media and news outlets, there are no referees. Under immense public and political pressure, Twitter and Facebook may sometimes be persuaded to delete posts or flag tweets, but they still operate with impunity. Broadcasters, desperate to garner ratings and compelled to increase profitability, no longer feel the need to balance their content.

And we can all see where it has led.

What if we developed a new Fairness Doctrine for the Internet age?

There have been attempts in Congress to reinstate it since 2005, but they have quickly fizzled under fierce opposition primarily (although not exclusively) from conservatives and libertarians. And there has been little political will to fight that battle.

The Brookings Institute opines that an attempt to engineer a fairness rule for the Internet is futile and “doomed to backfire.” The worry is that it would amount to vastly increased government control over free speech:

Under the First Amendment, each social media platform or other privately-operated web site is free to welcome a diverse range of viewpoints or, alternatively, to preferentially welcome viewpoints from either the political right or the political left . . . the internet as a whole certainly does not prevent users from accessing multiple viewpoints.

Yeah, but that’s not what happens. And free speech does have limits. You can’t holler “Fire!” in a crowded theater just because you feel like it; social media sites can’t promulgate child porn or direct threats to individuals. The corporations and interests who profit from steering public discourse should also bear some responsibility for doing so.

As we enter the post-Trump era, all of us weary of the shrieking rhetoric, the fear, the distrust, surely we can do better. We can’t play this game without rules, nor without referees. We have to find a way to preserve our freedom of speech without letting our public discourse devolve into a screaming match.

What will that look like?

I don’t have the answer. But having the question is something, along with the expectation that we can and should ask for more, both from our leaders and the private interests who are the gatekeepers of information and opinion. Yes, we have a lot on our plates at the moment: a pandemic to survive and conquer, an economy to bolster, a planet to heal.

All of those things will take cooperation and a unity of will. Not from all of us, but enough of us. And that’s much more likely to happen if we can listen to eah other. Without the echo chamber.

Please, discuss. I truly want to know what you think.

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