Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
I’ve been watching the ongoing melt-down of the social media forum Twitter with a mixture of schadenfreude, sadness, and disgust. Schadenfreude, because I don’t know another word for watching the world’s richest man burn up $44 billion dollars in a hollow attempt to prove he’s a brilliant engineer and businessperson. Sadness, for all the thousands of people losing their jobs with a company in which they invested years of their lives build something they truly believed in. Disgust, because for better or worse Twitter became the 21st century equivalent of the 18th century town square and now it’s rapidly crumbling away with nothing to replace it.
So, I humbly offer my suggestion that it’s time for a government-run social media site.
Social Media as a Public Option
I’m calling this the “social media public option” in the same way that a government-run national healthcare system presents a public option over private for-profit healthcare systems. I see that social media has quickly become the town square, a public place where anyone can stand up and rant on whatever topic they care to. A public space where the rich and powerful can be dressed down by ordinary folks, and those rich folks forced to answer. A low-cost means of communications where people can meet, socialize, and keep in contact with each other.
Social media has become the lifeblood of communities both local and global—it has become a public good and should be treated as such.
Filling a Vital Need
Just as the town squares supported local communities, social media supports global communities. Companies build their international customer support using social media. Government agencies use social media to connect to the public they serve. News media uses social media as part of their communications structure. Individuals use it to keep in touch with family and friends that live too far for personal contact. Without modern social media, our world would quickly become smaller and less hospitable.
For-Profit Town Squares
The 18th century town squares were public property, accessible to anyone and everyone and ultimately protected by our First Amendment rights of religious expression, freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, and petitioning the government for redress of grievances. However, unlike those town squares all of today’s social media is private property, and First Amendment rights do not automatically apply in the commercial sector.
Protection of Personal Data
Commercially run social media creates the obscene situation where commercial entities collect their user’s personal information and sell it to the highest bidder – entirely “appropriate” forcommercial entities expected to make a profit. The “legitimate” use of this information is for targeted marketing intended to entice users into spending their money. So, the cost of using this 21st century town square is the complete loss of privacy for all in the pursuit of profits for a few.
We’re also faced with the malicious use of our personal information through hacking attacks: cybersecurity is expensive and cuts into profits. Any company will do a cost-benefit analysis to decide how much to spend protecting information versus the negative fiscal impact of losing that data. In fact, there’s typically little negative impact to a company who loses personal information to hackers. The information was copied, not stolen, so the company can continue to sell it, and their marketing customers don’t have to compete with the hackers in the first place.
Unequal Access for All
We also have the obscene situation of commercial entities getting to decide that certain public officials or groups cannot use their media platform. We are forced to tolerate the partisan treatment of one individual or group over others based purely on those commercial entities’ economic interests.
Spreading Deceptive Information
Mark Twain said, “A lie goes around the world before truth can get it’s pants on.” The purpose of commercially run social media is to earn profit, and increasing the number of content views increases the profit. Any salacious bit of content, true or not, is going to generate more views and more profit. There is a strong positive profit motive for encouraging the spread of false and even malicious content on commercially run social media.
Advantages of Government Social Media
The most significant advantage of a government-operated social media is greater protection of users’ privacy. A government function is not expected to turn a profit, and the existing legal controls for protecting personal information on government computer systems would automatically apply to a government social media system. Personal information loaded into government-operated social media could not legally be sold or used for any purpose not specifically authorized by the owner.
As a government system, the First Amendment rights of religious expression, freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, and petitioning the government for redress of grievances here do apply. A government-operated social media will have constitutionally protected legal safeguards for participants. I recognize this is both a positive and negative thing, but the positive benefit of allowing everyone a platform, no matter how obnoxious, must be considered as outweighing the negatives.
Free speech is free speech, and the true antidote to inflammatory speech is counteracting speech. Some forms of speech such as slander, libel, or inciting violence are not protected. These forms of speech already have well-defined legal consequences that apply in any type of forum, public or private.
At the same time, a government site has the resources to effectively protect users’ data from hackers. The cost-benefit ratio that commercial entities use does not apply to a government operation, and given that the government already deals with cyber-security across all their networks, adding one more system is not a huge lift. Government-operated social media would benefit from synergies gained from other cybersecurity operations.
Synergetic cybersecurity expertise would also support monitoring for false information. This includes common social media issues such as blocking fake user accounts and identifying bots and/or malicious users working for hostile foreign governments.
Disadvantages of Government Social Media
On the flip side, there are potential issues of government surveillance and I would expect users to feel wary about posting on a site where Big Brother can be watching. However, the government can already tap into any privately-operated social media site to, for example, keep tabs on white supremacist, neo-Nazi and other extremist groups. What would probably happen is that the worst of such groups will self-select to not operate on the Government-owned site, and I see few downsides to this. Given these extremist groups tend to fall outside the boundaries of protected speech, established legal consequences still apply.
Social Media Design
Site design and useability could be another problem area. People go onto social media because they get something of personal value out of the experience. A poorly designed site will not draw the community needed to make it viable…and government websites seem to be rarely awarded prizes for good design.
I would expect that a public social media site should be designed to support debate and information-sharing. A Twitter format may be the most effective approach, or it may not. A government-run site could easily setup a dedicated channel for user feedback on design features.
Another disadvantage is gaining the steady funding needed to operate a massive social media site. Given our bipolar two-party government, I have no doubt funding would dramatically change depending upon which political party controls the federal government at any given time. The only real protection would be broad support of a public social media site…which would directly relate to the site’s design and perceived usefulness.
A government-operated social media site would be a 21st century approach to reclaiming a true public forum. It would be the Internet equivalent of our public broadcast systems (PBS and NPR). Although funding would always be subjected to the winds of politics, a government social media site would ensure privacy protections for all users, a level field for access, and strong protections from spreading false information.
Our government once encouraged the exchange of ideas through the forum of town squares and other public gatherings. Today, there are a precious few truly public spaces where people can debate, discuss, and exchange ideas. I feel it’s time for our government to once again encourage people to engage in a non-threatening public forum. A forum not subjected to the whims of commercial obligations.
It’s time for our government to directly support public forums through a 21st century equivalent of the town square.