In the Wake of the Texas Rampage, Social Media Can Reform Itself

From a New York Times opinion piece by Kara Swisher headlined “In the Texas Rampage’s Wake, Social Media Can Reform Itself”:

It’s almost impossible to comprehend what to do in the wake of mass shootings like the one that killed 19 schoolchildren and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, this week. While there are lots of words — you can listen to my discussion on “Sway” with Nicholas Kristof and Frank Smyth on where we go next on gun control — it can leave an empty feeling, as the sense of hopelessness overwhelms our ability to understand how we got here. The problem is exacerbated by the perpetrators’ use of online tools, which some have used to float phony conspiracy theories.

Just 10 days before the shootings in Uvalde, a gunman broadcast himself live on social media killing 10 Black people in a Buffalo supermarket after posting a racist screed online. It’s become the demon’s playbook — that gunman, the police say, was emulating the moves of another mass murderer in New Zealand, and praised him as a sick inspiration for the mayhem.

Social media has made such performative acts amazingly simple and attractive, allowing the evil to be amplified across the globe, as it was in the 18-year-old Texas gunman’s posting photos of his semiautomatic weapons. This time, though, investigators have found no twisted map of motivations or, thankfully, live videos from the classroom where the gunman holed up. However, it appears he sent private Facebook messages to someone ticking off his crimes, from shooting his grandmother to heading to the school to murder children.

Sadly (and predictably) government officials opposed to any new restrictions on gun accessibility — namely Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas — have seized on the gunman’s use of Facebook to attempt to shift accountability onto social media. But any honest accounting shows that more of the blame for these senseless rampages lays at the feet of bought-and-paid-for politicians who have blocked any reasonable gun control measures in order to retain their own hold on power.

It’s often the case that the toxic misinformation that flows freely across social media like sewage has been bad for society (see: former President Donald Trump’s tweets and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol). But this time, there was virtually nothing Facebook could have done to prevent the real-life carnage beyond peering into and monitoring in real time all of its users’ private communications, a privacy line it would cross at great peril. Facebook can only examine the killer’s messages in hindsight to help law enforcement.

“The messages Gov. Abbott described were private one-to-one text messages that were discovered after the terrible tragedy occurred,” wrote Andy Stone, a spokesman for Facebook’s parent, Meta, in a tweet.

Some may want to hold tech responsible in this case, but we just cannot legitimately do so, even as Facebook and others are moving toward end-to-end encryption for private messaging. That’s sure to frustrate investigators who will find it’s extremely difficult to scrutinize as much information as possible after another such horror, inevitably, happens again.

Still, there’s hope in an increasing number of artificial intelligence solutions used to monitor public postings for potential violence and to warn officials. The Washington Post noted that the Uvalde school district “previously used an artificial intelligence-backed program to scan social media posts for potential threats years before the attack.” But A.I. brings its own challenges and, unfortunately, no amount of monitoring in such a tight time frame would have been helpful.

There is, however, a crucial action that Big Tech can take in the wake of the Uvalde shootings. Awful as these murders are — and those at Sandy Hook Elementary were a decade ago — it further victimizes the families when online postings and new websites quickly spread from those who try to paint the crimes as hoaxes. I’ll say it again, tech companies should stop the misinformation.

There are lessons in the leisurely pace with which Facebook and other tech platforms acted to shut down malevolent characters like Alex Jones who preyed on the Sandy Hook children’s deaths. Rather than acting decisively, the platforms let his vile content remain visible under the banner of free speech, a constantly shifting value depending upon who’s in charge.

As Sandy Hook’s still-grieving parents, like Leonard Pozner, note, big social media platforms like Facebook, did the bare minimum to stop such dreck. I got into it in an interview with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook way back in the fall of 2018 when addressing Jones’s online behavior — he essentially said he would be loath to take down much of that false speech.

“There are really two core principles at play here. There’s giving people a voice, so that people can express their opinions. Then, there’s keeping the community safe, which I think is really important. We’re not going to let people plan violence or attack each other or do bad things,” Zuckerberg told me. “Those principles have real trade-offs and real tug on each other. In this case, we feel like our responsibility is to prevent hoaxes from going viral and being widely distributed.”

Um, “By only putting these obvious malefactors in a less trafficked room,” I thought, before asking: “Why don’t you want to just say: ‘Get off our platform’?”

His reply: “As abhorrent as some of this content can be, I do think that it gets down to this principle of giving people a voice.”

Principles? Really? It took him seven more months to finally ban Jones, ostensibly for violating the company’s policies on “dangerous individuals and organizations.”

Once again, far too late and too little, too. If any good can come from this latest senseless shooting, let’s hope that platforms like Facebook will send a message by acting quickly to remove, not sideline, the hoax content. Yes, we know the companies are sorry for the victims, but they better honor them by favoring these children’s memories over the malicious posters.

It’s not a hard lane to choose and it’s not as slippery a slope as some make it out to be. It is just the kind of firm act that will perhaps restore some trust to social media, which is, though it often feels like it, not our government.

“The focus for all of these platforms is growth and expansion,” said Pozner in our discussion. “They really don’t want to deal with the cleanup at all. And for as long as they can avoid having to do that, they did.”

“They were not interested in fixing it,” he said of Facebook.

Uvalde is another opportunity for digital leaders to do the right thing after years of doing the wrong things. Which means: Fix it.

Kara Swisher writes a weekly newsletter and is the host of “Sway,” the twice-weekly interview podcast about power.

 

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