What the Fight Over Facebook Misses

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The president of the United States and one of America’s most powerful companies are like spouses stuck in an argument over dirty socks: They’re avoiding the real problem.

In the past week, President Biden and Facebook have been in a war of words over vaccine misinformation. Each side took an extreme position that distracted them and us from a deeper issue: Americans have become so divided that it’s difficult to even begin to confront our problems. We’ve seen this with the pandemic, climate change, violent crime and more.

My wish for all of us, our elected leaders and the technology companies that mediate our discourse, is for everyone to stay glued to what they can do to find common ground.

To recap the grudge match: President Biden late last week said that internet networks like Facebook were “killing people” because he believes they aren’t doing enough to stop the spread of misleading information about Covid-19 or vaccines for the virus. Facebook shot back that it was helping save lives by amplifying authoritative coronavirus information and said that the White House was trying to deflect blame for missing its vaccination goals.

But it would help if Facebook did more to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: Facebook, YouTube and Twitter play an important role in informing the public and in misinforming the public. It would also help if the company simply said aloud what Sheera reported — that it doesn’t know the prevalence of misleading coronavirus information on its social network and cannot answer the White House’s questions.

Doing that analysis would help improve our collective understanding of how information spreads online, just as Facebook’s (belated and reluctant) self-assessment of Russian propaganda around the 2016 U.S. election improved our collective knowledge about foreign influence campaigns.

But if Facebook told us tomorrow how much misleading information was circulating about the coronavirus, Americans would still argue about the meaning of the data and what to do about it.

And we’d repeat the same fights over who is to blame for misinformation, the limits of freedom of expression and whether social platforms are doing too much or too little to control what’s said on their sites.

The fundamental problem is that we have so little common ground. We don’t all agree how much to focus on a virus that has killed more than 600,000 Americans or how to balance prevention measures that have disrupted people’s lives and the economy. We can’t agree on whether or how to slow climate change, and are not prepared to deal collectively with the consequences. It seems the only thing we can agree on is that the other side can’t be trusted.

Is this the fault of social media companies’ business models and algorithms, people trying to make a fast buck, irresponsible politicians who play on our emotions, or our fears of becoming sick or destitute? Yes.

That shouldn’t let anyone or any company off the hook for nurturing an environment of distrust. But there is no simple answer to what the misinformation researcher Renée DiResta has called a whole-of-society problem.

That’s why days of bickering between the White House and Facebook don’t get us anywhere. We fixate on scoring points in arguments and details like missing data, and ignore the much bigger picture. We cannot agree on anything important. We don’t trust one another. That’s the real issue we need to solve.

It’s a horse. Wearing horse suspenders. Made from human bluejeans.

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