Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” These days, though, two out of three Americans get their news from social media sites like Facebook, its subsidiary Instagram, Google’s YouTube, and Twitter. And these sites supply each of us with our own facts, showing conservatives mostly news liked by other conservatives, feeding liberals mostly liberal content.
Democracy depends on the integrity of the information we consume, and social media has undermined that. It has created biased alternate realities that have deepened and hardened our partisan divide. If America is to continue as a viable, unified nation, it must restore a healthy multi-perspective discourse.
Breaking up the social network companies won’t solve the problem. The Federal Trade Commission has initiated antitrust suits against Google and Facebook, the latter supported by attorneys general in 46 states (including Massachusetts). But splitting Instagram from Facebook or YouTube from Google would just result in more, slightly smaller social networks promulgating the same fake and biased content.
Fortunately, there is a simple solution that won’t require years-long antitrust actions, abrogating the First Amendment, killing the sites altogether, or even meddling in their algorithms. Let’s call it social media rebalancing. And there’s a precedent for it: the Fairness Doctrine.
The Federal Communications Commission created the Fairness Doctrine in 1949, requiring radio (and eventually television) broadcasters who aired a point of view to allow “qualified representatives of opposing viewpoints” airtime as well. If you watched local TV in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, you saw such dueling opinion segments on the local news. The rationale was to provide the public with diverse and balanced perspectives, even though a given market might have only three or four TV stations. If a broadcaster failed to live up to the doctrine, it was at risk of losing its government broadcast license, ending its ability to operate.
The amount of enlightening content enabled by the Fairness Doctrine is difficult to measure. But the effect of ending it isn’t. The Reagan administration-controlled FCC suspended the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, and Rush Limbaugh’s radio program emerged the following year, followed by a flood of other partisan talk shows.
With dozens of channels and thousands of websites slinging news now, there’s a wide diversity of perspectives on offer. In theory, this should mean that the need for the Fairness Doctrine has dissipated. But there is only one Facebook, only one YouTube, and only one Twitter, and their algorithms together ensure that each individual sees mostly news and opinion consonant with their own perspective — the same sort of problem that the Fairness Doctrine was intended to head off.
Google and Twitter say they’re trying to make things better. A Google spokesperson explained that YouTube’s recommendation system now tends to go from extreme content to more mainstream content, not the reverse. Twitter’s spokesperson pointed out that the company posts warnings on misleading information from political figures like the president. But while social media companies continue to take baby steps away from the worst content, like hate speech, they’ve made only token efforts to compensate for the divide they’ve worsened and the falsehoods they’ve sustained. They’re not held accountable for the damage they continue to create. This has to stop.
The Fairness Doctrine never applied to cable networks like CNN, newspapers, or magazines — because unlike the Big Three networks, they didn’t use public airwaves and didn’t hold a government-issued broadcast license that could be used as leverage. But there is leverage against the monopolistic behavior and algorithms of social networks. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is a key part of US media regulation that enables social networks to operate profitably. It creates a liability shield so that sites like Facebook that host user-generated content can’t be held responsible for defamatory posts on their sites and apps. Without it, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and similar sites would get sued every time some random poster said that Mike Pence was having an affair or their neighbor’s Christmas lights were part of a satanic ritual.
Both President Trump and President-elect Biden have called for revoking Section 230, but that would dramatically curtail expression — not only on social network sites but on any site where people can post content, like community message boards or knitting groups on Pinterest (as well as the online comments section of this newspaper). As Philip M. Napoli, author of the definitive book “Social Media and the Public Interest,” explains, “Nobody’s interests are well served by opening the sites up to lawsuits. But Section 230 as a quid pro quo: That appeals to me.” We should make social networks earn their liability protection by increasing the diversity of their content.
Historically, Supreme Court opinions regarding First Amendment protections for problematic speech have taken the position that the correct remedy is not shutting it down but stimulating “counterspeech.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a 1919 opinion, “The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” And in 1927, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
It is within our regulators’ power to enable this diversity of speech. The original Fairness Doctrine emerged from the FCC’s charge to support a balance of opposing viewpoints and support diversity of programming services — the same need that is so visible now. People want it, too: According to the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Americans say social media companies have too much control over the news people see, and 55 percent say the result is a worse mix of news.
Last year, Facebook generated $70 billion in advertising revenue; YouTube, around $15 billion; and Twitter, $3 billion. Now the FCC should require them to set aside 10 percent of their total ad space to expose people to diverse sources of content. They would be required to show free ads for mainstream liberal news sources to conservatives, and ads for mainstream conservative news sites to liberals. (They already know who’s liberal and who’s conservative — how do you think they bias the news feed in the first place?) The result would be sort of a tax, paid in advertising, to compensate for the billions these companies make under the government’s generous Section 230 liability shield and counteract the toxicity of their algorithms.
Why do this with ads, rather than inserting posts directly into the social media news feed? Dropping an unexpected post into a news feed — not from a friend and not labeled an advertisement — would feel like an unwelcome intrusion to many users. Besides, media companies already know that ads work: A healthy chunk of the social media titans’ ad revenue already comes from ads that generate clicks into media sites.
These ads would also create a dynamic that would strengthen engagement across the political spectrum. MSNBC, offered free ad units targeted to conservatives, would not provide its new audience with the same old liberal content, because no conservative would ever click on that. Instead, it would have to figure out how to create and advertise content attractive and interesting to those outside its natural audience. Fox News would grapple with the same conundrum from the opposite side of the political spectrum. While I wouldn’t expect such content to appear in those networks’ marquee broadcasts, there could certainly be a place for it in a section of their websites. For example, a media site might post links to articles like “The three priorities liberals and conservatives agree on” and “A startling way to move beyond the health care impasse.” We’d see more media on shared values, rather than the red-meat issues that divide us.
Would it work? Psychological researchers are seeking ways to pry people loose from their confirmation biases. The psychologist Gary Klein suggests stimulating people’s curiosity to overcome their fixations. You can also undermine people’s assumptions by showing them surprising facts that resonate beyond the partisan echo chamber. While some Americans have been sucked into an inescapable extremist vortex, others are still open to data that may change their minds — which is why the 2020 presidential election yielded a different result from 2016.
The world’s most effective persuaders are advertisers, who constantly get people to buy stuff they didn’t realize they needed. Turn them loose on the information problem and they’ll find ways to intrigue us with information we didn’t realize we needed, too.
Because a counterspeech advertising program leverages — rather than upends — social sites’ algorithms, it’s likely to be far more palatable to tech giants than more drastic alternatives like repealing Section 230. Because it fits neatly into the existing site experience, it won’t disrupt users. And because it connects Americans to content that challenges one-sided narratives, it has the potential to take us back to a shared reality, instead of each of us having our own filtered set of facts.
This is a path back to sanity from the toxic shattering of reality that Facebook, Twitter, and Google have visited upon us. We can get to work on it as soon as Joe Biden’s FCC commissioners are confirmed. And we can put the power of social networks to work pulling the nation together, instead of tearing it apart.
Josh Bernoff is the author or coauthor of six books on media and marketing. He blogs daily at bernoff.com.