We’re hypnotised by the social media giants. We’ve convinced ourselves that Musk and Zuckerberg and the rest are impossible to deal with. They’re not.
The more frantic we become about the wickedness and power of the platforms, the more we confirm that power. The more action we demand of police and legislators, the more we confirm their exceptional status, their untouchability.
The standard position now — in the mainstream anyway — is that the social media platforms ‘wield too much power’, that they operate vital infrastructure recklessly, endangering democracy, threatening free speech, exposing our kids to harm, silencing the righteous and platforming the wicked.
The complicated premise is that the platforms are so very, very important, that they’ve come to fill a vital, irreplacable public role. That they’re ‘the new public square’ — our agora — but also that they’ve evolved into a hideous, out-of-control threat to liberty, happiness and democracy.
As a result, the argument goes, we must act — hold the platforms to account, require them to operate their sprawling businesses differently. It’s urgent. Influential people write leader articles about the platforms’ power and venality, we discuss them in our legislatures, grill them in committee rooms, watch their CEOs sweat.
We demand the impossible — and it makes us look stupid
So the heat is on for the platforms. They must delete posts we object to and remove users who upset and bully others (oh, and they must simultaneously protect freedom of expression, leaving up inflammatory posts because of ‘the right to offend’). Everywhere, demands are made and sanctions proposed — vast fines, forced break-ups, exclusion from markets, mandated payments to publishers.
Legislators and columnists require the platforms to perform implausibly complex tasks — reading billions of posts to find content that offends, for instance, or policing membership lists to weed out the hateful or the banned. Some of these measures would be, if enacted, brutally intrusive, requiring a scary level of cross-matching and de-anonymisation, but somehow we’re able to overlook the obvious damage our most extreme instincts would produce.