Social media never intended to be in the news business — but just wait till AI takes over
Like a struggling actor selling used cars outside Palm Springs, social media now finds itself doing a job it never wanted: journalism.
These platforms were never supposed to be in the news business — that’s just not how they were designed. But they need to figure this out quickly, or impatient politicians will push their way inside the front door.
The latest anti-social-network imbroglio is aimed at Twitter, which last week locked the campaign account of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSocial media never intended to be in the news business — but just wait till AI takes over Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity Two-thirds of Americans support assault weapons ban: Fox News poll MORE (R-Ky.) The senator’s staff had posted video of protesters outside his house threatening violence. Twitter determined those images violated policies against hate-filled content.
The account was reinstated after McConnell complained, but a firestorm followed. President TrumpDonald John TrumpGibraltar releases Iranian tanker despite US move to block it Warren leads Democratic field by 5 points in Wisconsin: poll Stephen Colbert on Trump: ‘He’s trying to invite us into this madness’ MORE — the tweeter-in-chief — now wants the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate social media and ferret out perceived anti-conservative bias on platforms like Twitter.
That slant is tough to prove, especially if you look at the list of suspended Twitter accounts. It includes everything from MeToo activists, Antifa groups and the tweets of “tiger enthusiast” Alex Boivin, who allegedly sexually harassed “the cereal mascot Tony the Tiger.” It’s hard to see a pattern.
However, this much is clear: More and more, Twitter and other social networks are expected to behave like something they are not — responsible, professional journalism outlets. We now want established standards, with trained editors and producers enforcing strict rules. We demand fact-checking backed up by rapid-response corrections when mistakes are made.
But that wasn’t baked into the recipe. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the rest were not invented to perform the expensive and time-consuming work of gathering and verifying information. Just the opposite: They were created to allow users to publish freely, without filters of any kind.
Twitter was first designed as a way for people “to communicate to a small group,” maybe the marketing team at work or a fundraising committee at school. One of Twitter’s creators, Evan Williams, acknowledged that the mission soon evolved. “The insight we eventually came to,” he said, “was Twitter was really more of an information network than a social network.”
It has become, by any measure, a very big information network. In 2018, Twitter counted 321 million monthly active users. The platform was the largest source of news on Election Day 2016, with about 75 million election-related tweets sent out by midnight Pacific time.
It is now Twitter’s near-impossible challenge to cope with that unplanned reality: It’s a massive information source. The platform uses a combination of humans and algorithms to track posts — but how do you regulate 75 million tweets in the course of a few hours? How do you guarantee every user is treated fairly? There aren’t enough trained editors and producers in the world to keep on top of such an enormous data flow, passing professional judgment on each tweet. Dragging the FCC into it won’t change that.
Yes, it’s maddening — the standards and judgments at social networks do keep shifting. But that’s because the ways in which these platforms are used keep modifying. Facebook founder Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergSocial media never intended to be in the news business — but just wait till AI takes over Facebook exploring deals with media outlets for news section: report Senators press Facebook over its handling of children’s privacy MORE, when he was a kid in his Harvard dorm room, could not have anticipated his invention turning into a home for Russian operatives using disinformation to influence American elections. He was just trying to meet girls.
But here we are, in a world changed by these creations that started small and became colossal. Congress and other concerned corners struggle to figure out how to hold social media executives accountable. Those executives, meanwhile, struggle to predict and prepare for the next scandal.
Warning: Accountability, difficult as it is now, will only get harder. Soon, these platforms will adopt the only method smart enough to standardize and regulate the billions of posts flooding their networks every day — artificial intelligence.
Over the next couple of years, AI systems will progress rapidly, literally developing minds of their own. Eventually, those systems will be responsible for all social media decisions, every nuance and distinction. No humans will be involved, just nameless, faceless electrodes calling balls and strikes on a continuous flood of information.
At that point, there will be no one to complain to. There will be no one to drag in front of House committees, no one to sweat in front of cameras. There will be nothing anyone can do, except the unthinkable: Get off social media.
But, by then, will any of us remember what to do without it?
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.