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writing for godot

Breitbart could buy Facebook. What then?

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Written by Tom Cantlon   
Thursday, 01 February 2018 16:38

When massive public influence is owned by private companies there is nothing to stop them from being taken over by groups with destructive goals. In all the controversy about how Facebook and Twitter and Google handle news, this issue hasn't risen to awareness. This situation, monopolies of such public influence, is new to the nation.

The concern over how misleading our digital news media can be needs to go a step further. The channels through which a large portion of the public get their news are monopolies, owned by private companies, which can set policies at their whim. The monopoly aspect is new compared to when TV or newspapers ruled, before the internet. It leaves us vulnerable because, who knows who will own these monopolies in the future.

Private companies have always been the primary source of news in the U.S., which is good, but in the past there was competition, which helped keep quality on track. In the '80s national TV news was almost entirely in the hands of ABC, NBC, and CBS, but they were in direct competition with one another. Leading newspapers that had national followings competed with one another. Newspapers and TV also competed with each other.

Now, for all those whose primary news source is Facebook, there is just that one company running it. Facebook is more like its own type of medium than just another source in a competitive medium. Same with Twitter. The same with looking into any topic by way of the top search results on Google. The analogy would be if in the '80s only CBS had national TV news, or if only the New York Times had produced a national newspaper.

The internet might seem like an open system of millions of sources but if one company can patent their product or own the market for something as different from the rest and as popular as Facebook or Twitter then they have created their own monopoly. It's similar to how the power lines to your house could theoretically be powered by any power service, but really your one, local utility is effectively a monopoly riding on top of that open system. But then, that's a regulated utility. Facebook is not.

The problems of Facebook and Twitter and Google search results being manipulated by Russian and other fake news sources, and of Facebook's news choices being a mostly blind promotion of what is most popular, which can lead to a race to the bottom of quality, have been well documented, but what is worse is that whether those problems are addressed, to what extent, in what way, is entirely in the hands of those private companies. They can deal with it however they want, and change that again whenever they want. Facebook is trying some new changes. Maybe they'll help. Maybe just enough for Facebook to declare itself responsible. Maybe they'll abandon these changes and try others, or give up. But it's entirely up to the whim of the company. There are neither laws related to it, nor competition compelling certain standards, nor are they creators of news pieces and so aren't responsible for the accuracy.

If you think Mark Zuckerberg seems at least somewhat benevolently concerned about the impact his company has on public discourse, be grateful. What happens if a couple of years from now it is purchased by Trump enterprises, or Breitbart News? Bye, bye benevolence.

Facebook is largely owned by Zuckerberg. What happens if he's not around, or decides to cash out and get out of running the company? Who buys it? Who has the massive wealth to back the buying of enough of it to control it? The Koch brothers? The Mercers? Fox News? Twitter is a public company, but a discreet effort with enough resources could buy a controlling interest or gain control of its board. The same with Google and it's parent company.

What happens then? What if one or another is run by an owner or group with an agenda centered on reactionary conservative policies? Or white supremacist goals? Or that is inclined to obey elected leaders with authoritarian tendencies? There's absolutely nothing to stop that from happening.

Is that unlikely? The conservative movement, some years back, sensed the power it would give them to have a TV network and news channel that pushed their agenda and they created Fox News. Can we really think they aren't salivating over the immense influence of these internet monopolies, and strategizing how to use their vast, and ever increasing, wealth to take that next step?

It would also be a problem if it were someone with unconstitutionally Socialist goals, but the current threats don't come from that direction.

We humans, particularly since the age of film and radio, have repeatedly proven ourselves to be susceptible to influence by propaganda, numerous times having that lead to war or violent oppression. Propaganda doesn't have to end in such drastic results, but any damage is not good, and the possibility of suffering such a high price is real.

On the internet it's possible to lose track of where you are, to follow one link, to another, to another, and suddenly realize you are into material far from anything you would have considered. Someone enjoying the clouds while out for a walk in a recent war zone might suddenly realize they've strolled deep into a mine field. We are not approaching a similar situation, we are already in it. We should lift our heads, look around, and realize that we are, even now, into dangerous territory of an explosive combination with the immense influence on what people think, and the open possibility of that being owned by someone with a damaging agenda. I am not declaring a solution. I am declaring, "Oh, shit!"

 

Tom Cantlon has the interesting challenge of being a left-leaning writer for the paper in a small, right-leaning Western town, in a right-leaning state. He can be reached at comments at TomCantlon dot com.

 

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+1 # zepp 2018-02-16 16:54
I'll just remind folks that once upon a time the Times of London and the Wall Street Journal were two of the most influential publications on Earth, and now both are lightly regarded as just Murdoch house organs, struggling for advertisers and clicks.
Social media is a lot more volatile, and should someone like Breitbart take over FB, it would be quickly abandoned by users and wind up as the next MySpace.
 

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