But then something else happened.
A new class of media companies emerged—a group more powerful and more dangerous to truth than any army of bloggers. This new order was led by a collective of powerful individuals who quickly made a fortune, decimating the business model that journalistic institutions relied on and adopting the civic-minded language of journalism to defend the way their companies would enable the spread of lies and propaganda on a massive scale. Who could have imagined such an informational dystopia?
Only with the arrival of the smartphone and the social web did it become obvious that, for those concerned with promoting truth and protecting journalism, this was the force to reckon with—this new class of publishers who refused for so long to acknowledge what everyone could plainly see they had built: Facebook is the largest media company in the world and Mark Zuckerberg the most powerful publisher in human history. Twitter is a smaller media company, sure, but still influential in many ways, not least of all because it is known for being the publishing platform of choice among wealthy celebrities, powerful politicians, and journalists. And also: conspiracy theorists.
There was a time, in another century, when conspiracy theories spread through letters to the editors of newspapers. That is where people claimed, as I’ve previously reported, that Roosevelt was secretly a communist and that scientists were controlling the weather. The lies were printed, but they were contained—or at least differentiated. Today, such fabrications spread online, uninhibited by gatekeepers of the old guard, and instead enabled by publishers who don’t give a damn about the truth.
When the founders of the world’s most powerful and influential media companies can claim, straight faced, that they are not media companies, they frequently go on to point out that opinions are as valuable as facts. Zuckerberg, meeting with a small group of news editors in Palo Alto last spring, said this: “I do think that in general, within a news organization, there is an opinion… I do think that a lot of what you all do, is have an opinion and have a view.” And then, describing how Facebook would let its users rank truth based on what they believe: “You should decide where you want to be.”
I remembered this exchange when Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, published a multi-part explanation his decision to protect the InfoWars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s use of Dorsey’s publishing platform. “Accounts like Jones’ can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors,” Dorsey tweeted, “so it’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions. This is what serves the public conversation best.”
To recap: What serves the public conservation best, Dorsey argues, is for one media company to reject the idea that publishers are responsible for the quality of what appears on their platforms, to ignore the larger record of information people publish—and instead to rely on other publishers to uphold standards such as seeking the truth and reporting it, holding the powerful accountable for lies and corruption, and doing so in a way that serves the public good and minimizes harm.