Gatekeepers, Openness & Open Society: Lessons from Facebook, NYTimes & The Wing

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I started writing this week’s article with what we thought was a relatively small insight — what do The debate about Twitter and Facebook “censorship,” the CEO of The Wing stepping down and the Tom Cotton Op-Ed in the NYTimes all have in common?

Answer: They all revealed gatekeepers who either don’t understand that they are gatekeepers or what they are gatekeeping for, and the misunderstanding of the tacit agreement they have made with their users has started to blow up in their face.

But as I delved into each example I kept on coming back to Facebook as the truly tragic misunderstanding, and a structure through which to think about one of the most important debates raging through Silicon Valley right now — should Mark Zuckerberg censor inappropriate content. It kept on circling back to one conclusion:

The ironic and potentially tragic thing is that Facebook unseated MySpace because they were in better alignment as a gatekeeper of an open society — they realized that an open and healthy society is dependent on a solid identity. A solid identity sometimes required restricting freedom around profiles and names in a way that MySpace wasn’t willing to do. Facebook is failing to realize that a healthy and open society also depends on a universal appreciation of facts and the truth, and sometimes that actually requires restricting freedoms of a few to not degrade the platform standards for the rest of us.

Each organization’s stance re gatekeeping seems to have blown up in their face these past two weeks. As Facebook rejected the entire premise that it is in fact a gatekeeper, Twitter started to come to terms with it and The Wing paid the consequences of taking a strong stance as a gatekeeper that they could never live up to, but it’s appropriate to actually start with how the NYTimes failed to grasp their role as another more traditional gatekeeper of an open society.

Tom Cotton & The NYTimes as Gatekeepers of Liberal Democracy

The hallowed institution that is the NYTimes screwed up this week by publishing a pretty out of mainstream view by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas that basically advocated for using our troops to restore order in cities and put down protests.

One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.

Advocating treating protesters in our country like Syrian or Libyan strongmen treat their’s was a line many were uncomfortable with, and James Bennet, the opinion editor at the Times, resigned after the uproar.

The Times apologized, but many of the apologies were more linked to the fact that they didn’t fact check some of his unverified claims close enough, which as Crooked Media details, kind of misses the point, which is that their role in the eyes of their subscribers is as a gatekeeper of liberal democracy, an open society, and they failed at that gatekeeper role:

Apparently the NYTimes didn’t realize a sitting U.S. Senator flirting with acting like a strongman dictator to our protesters wasn’t consistent with an open society.

There is this idea that the press is supposed to be impartial, show all sides, not stifle free speech, that is frankly a misunderstanding of the role of the press — Frank Rich expands on this gatekeeper role and blows up the idea of the impartial press in“What Trump Will Do To Win:”

The truth is that neither the Times nor any other news organization has ever been scrupulously “nonpartisan.” Just look at how 99 percent of the mainstream press tilted its news coverage to lend credence to the Bush administration’s fictional case for war in Iraq. Decisions about what’s important and what’s not are made daily.

Which brings us to the frankly much bigger debate than just one op-ed in one newspaper . . .

Facebook and Twitter as Gatekeepers

Twitter finally acknowledged that they were indeed a gatekeeper by putting a warning on one of Trumps tweets a couple weeks ago, and eventually hiding another one. Facebook has steadfastly refused to take down posts that potentially incite violence by Trump.

My original inclination back in 2016 after the election was that Facebook was being used as a scapegoat — a convenient institution to blame when in reality there were 10+ factors that contributed to Donald Trump’s election, and a nice way for people who were at fault to deflect from their own culpability **cough cough Democratic campaigns who invested half as much in digital as Trump cough cough**.

After all, Hitler didn’t need a tech platform to gain power, beer halls were enough.

The Illusion of Impartiality at Facebook

Zuckerberg has taken a strong stance on radical impartiality that at first blush could come across as principled considering the grief he’s been getting and practical considering the ramifications of setting a bad precedent of wading into a partisan fight, but on closer examination is cowardly and shirking responsibility.

I was open to the idea that he has no place to litigate what people talk about, what is appropriate and what isn’t, and while writing this, as if to make that point, this article popped up on my Facebook profile: Upper East Side moms Facebook Group implodes after intense diversity fight.

The UES Mommas, a group of nearly 40,000 women who usually trade tips on nursery schools and strollers, roiled for days over racial issues, including whether to add a black moderator or even if conversation about the protests over the killing of George Floyd was even allowed.

Liberals should always remember that it’s possible someone comes into power who makes it standard policy to prohibit discussions of Black Lives Matter, gay marriage, abortion, etc., and how keen would we be then?

Openness & Transparency Above All

It’s this type of behavior that Mark Zuckerberg is most concerned about when he waxes poetic about not being the arbiter of truth, openness and transparency.

“The presumption on our service is that you should be able to say what you want unless you’re causing a specific harm and we enumerate what the harms are and try to enforce them. And I do think that default is right,” he said.

I think if Facebook was truly a neutral platform, he’d have a valid point, and I was sympathetic until I started thinking about it through the lens of gatekeepers, and asked myself if Facebook already made decisions about what’s important and what’s not, daily, just like the NYTimes. The answer is yes.

All the time was the answer — in their history they made two huge moves that moved them from the impartial platform they started as to a much less impartial one.

Facebook vs. The Facebook

The Facebook was the original name of Facebook as you know if you watched The Social Network. And it was a version where you wrote on each other’s walls, there was no newsfeed, and “ads weren’t cool,” so there weren’t any.

It was, in short, a vastly more impartial platform in many ways. But as The Facebook became Facebook is where the problem starts, and Mark Zuckerberg’s current defense starts to come across as more and more feckless. With growth they, quite reasonably, needed some way to sort through this content, and so the algorithmic newsfeed arrived, and eventually, ads and the modern day Facebook. And as they added more and more of these features, it edged closer and closer to a curation engine and away from a platform.

F##@K AirBART!

As an example to illustrate how certain ideas are favored above others, let me take you back to the first company I founded, Mozio, 9 years ago. The first experiment my cofounder and I ever ran, as a transportation company, was to rent buses and run our own service to the OAK airport from Berkeley right before Thanksgiving break to avoid the dreaded AirBART.

We compared two versions of our ad, the tame one and one that said F*#$K AirBART! with a nice image of some European toddler soccer fan flipping off the opposing team.

Twice the effectiveness of an ad in exchange for being more scandalous and shocking.

Now our experiment was relatively harmless, but this is an important point not because I’m trying to make a moral point about ads or digital manipulation, but because it pulls the curtain back on this idea that they aren’t already a gatekeeper — they made it easier for me to promote a more edgy message, because it was more likely to drive engagement and profits.

Facebook became a gatekeeper on your newsfeed so they could improve engagement. They improved engagement so they could better monetize with ads, and the more effective ads and user generated content are extreme and controversial.

Twitter has finally grown a pair. But Facebook is pretending it doesn’t have a gatekeeper role when doing so protects their bottomline, but is plenty keen to play gatekeeper when it benefits their engagement metrics . . .

Facebook Should Be A Gatekeeper of Open Society, Not Openness

Facebook’s values of openness and transparency aremisplaced — they should NOT be prioritizing openness — they should be prioritizing maintaining values that are consistent with an open society.

An open society values truth and facts, an open society values non-violence, it values freedom of assembly. It values vigorous debate but within its own values system.

It reminds me of the virulent racist or sexist who says you are intolerant because you won’t condone their retro views as an equally valid viewpoint.

There is the famous James Baldwin quote: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

Facebook and the members of an open society can disagree and still love each other unless that disagreement is rooted in the denial of an open society’s right to exist, and an assault on truth is about the biggest threat to an open society I can think about.

To quote the Crooked Media article again, referring to the Times debacle, but equally applicable here:

The question for Times opinion editors and the rest of civil society is whether they want to remain so irresolute that they continue to allow the right to push the boundaries of legitimate debate further into anti-democratic terrain, simply because a disconcerting number of Americans will be along for the ride.

Facebook is getting pilloried because they don’t understand this distinction — the open society that led to its rise expects it to act as a gatekeeper for that same open society, and it’s abdicating that responsibility.

Audrey Gelman & The Wing

We had been thinking a lot about how gatekeeping related to The Wing over the past 6 months as we saw more and more scandals pop up, and it bubbled up again this week when Audrey Gelman, their founder and CEO, stepped down a few days ago. If you look at Jezebel, there is a stunning amount of hit pieces on them, which at first blush is surprising because, well it’s supposed to be this feminist spot and Jezebel, on the surface, should like that kind of thing.

Above, searches for The Wing on Jezebel.

What I found most interesting was that The Wing seems to have been hoisted on their own petard — the very people they were ostensibly trying to help felt they didn’t live up to their promise as a gatekeeper.

Staff felt members were apparently entitled and treated them awfully at times, and that management didn’t stand up for them.

Some screamed at employees about crowding in the space and cried over insufficient swag. A common member refrain was that it was anti-feminist not to give her whatever perk she desired.

It wasn’t only between members and staff though, The Wing had to put up with hostility from the broader community. It reached a fairly ridiculous degree, where there was an entire debacle about theft of a phrase that was put on a patch that was then sown onto a jean jacket and someone took a photo of.

Last week black and brown staff members staged a digital walk-out and it was apparently the last straw and Audrey Gelman resigned, but it still wasn’t enough.

I have no interest in litigating what happened — as a white male I’m the least qualified person to do so, but what I found amazing is if you do the same search on Jezebel for Soho House, there is not one hit piece, just mentions of people being seen there . . . I’m willing to bet that Soho House cares even less about intersectional feminism than The Wing, but the difference is they didn’t promise you they would care. They promised you sitings of the cast of Scrubs (I’m currently at JD and Turk). Everyone hates a hypocrite.

My armchair analysis is that the term feminism seems to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. White feminism, intersectional feminism, trans rights, gender identity, LGBTQI feminism, how does wealth intersect with feminism are all things they needed to navigate. What about women who consider themselves as feminists but are anti-Abortion? Oof.

I do not envy The Wing’s founders for the next to impossible task of trying to serve so many masters, but The Wing also opened themselves up to that criticism by hugging the flag of feminism so close and inadvertently committing to a next-to-impossible, ever changing, gatekeeping standard.

MySpace, Identity & The Future of Facebook

Whether it’s Facebook, The Wing or the NYTimes, the important thing is not the values but whether or not they align with what they’ve promised the willing participants in their ecosystem. After all, Fox News would have welcomed a Tom Cotton Op-Ed, and The Wing can probably course correct by owning the subset of feminism who liked their product. And these institutions are actually pretty sensitive to their users, because it’s relatively easy to cancel a NYTimes subscription or a co-working space membership.

But a social network is completely different — the very defensibility of the business model can lend itself to arrogance until it’s too late. (There is a completely separate argument/article here for breaking up social networks/rigorous anti-trust enforcement on acquisitions so WhatsApp, Instagram & Facebook aren’t all beholden to one person’s ideology but I’ll leave that for another time.)

The funny thing about Facebook’s stance is that they unseated MySpace specifically because MySpace allowed for too much “openness,” you could change your name, look of your profile, everything.

Facebook’s realization that an open and healthy society is dependent on a solid identity. A solid identity leads to more accountability (just look at anonymous platforms like Reddit and 4Chan for the most egregious examples of online bullying). This is not so different than the realization Twitter has had that a healthy and open society depends on a universal appreciation of facts and the truth.

Facebook risks becoming the next MySpace by not understanding that their role is as a gatekeeper for an open society, not openness.

David

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Founder & CEO of Maxwell Social

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