Legislators’ push for regulating social media giant Facebook in the wake of an information scandal became rather empty when separate U.S. House and Senate hearings with Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg revealed how inadequate they are to the task.
The hearings, as The Associated Press pointed out, in part revealed how little some, not all, members of Congress know about Facebook. To be fair, though, this writer can count himself among them and therefore shouldn’t be so critical of our collective lack of knowledge over how it operates. But before drafting bills putting controls on what Facebook does, a little more understanding is in order.
Some of the lawmakers’ questions to Zuckerberg were pertinent and others just grandstanding to satisfy their political base, but the primary concern over the privacy of Facebook users still held precedence. Yet at the end of the day, nobody quite knew how to go about shielding users’ likes, dislikes and personal orientation without getting too technical or adding more restrictions to public expression.
That Facebook users’ information was obtained for campaign purposes by the data harvesting outfit Cambridge Analytica justifies the demand for stronger privacy safeguards. Still, the fear is out there that a sweeping set of regulations will rob us of something originally designed to keep us in contact with friends, neighbors and associates.
That concern may really be an indication of our times and attitudes toward free speech. Nearly everyone wants an uninterrupted flow of ideas, responsibly drafted and transmitted to the world at large. Too often, online discussions have deteriorated into rants from individuals on both sides of the political spectrum convinced they’re right and you’re from another planet if you disagree. Those rank-out sessions are accompanied by statements from varied sources that support a particular argument, manifestoes flavored by bogus information too eagerly taken as gospel by some Facebook users.
What does that have to do with privacy? It’s a distinction that has to be considered if Congress and state legislatures undertake to pass a few laws surrounding Facebook and its use. Fear that unbridled speech adds fuel to the fires affecting the national conversation are a separate matter from protecting users’ right to keep their information out of public view or from unethical distribution to political strategists.
If the regulation effort is to ensure privacy, then let it be about that issue, and allow free speech to stay unfettered on social media. But again, we must emphasize that it’s free speech of a responsible nature we’re advocating. But if an open forum continues to be plagued by propaganda, hate speech and other forms of spreading bile, Facebook users are advised to scroll past the viewpoints of extremists unless they find such outbursts acceptable, interesting, amusing or just plain appalling.
I only say this because in what appears to be an increasingly repressive society, maintaining open discussion reminds us of our living in a democracy. If you don’t like what you see or hear, then pass it by. It’s your choice, and let us be thankful such choice is still with us.
Anyway, knowing something about social media is key to understanding it before we start talking about setting down rules about what can and cannot be done. It’s conceivable there are some lawmakers who aren’t familiar with Facebook because they have staffers to take care of such matters. And it’s probably incumbent on those aides to teach the senator or congress-person how the system works. (In my case, my old-school “staff” of me, myself and I rely upon our own expert — namely, my lovely wife Beth — to solve the mysteries with which I am occasionally confronted).
Then we can begin discussing making social media more protective of our information, provided Mr. Zuckerberg & Co. can’t do so themselves. Then it may become the task of leaving the issue to what onetime Ohio State Rep. Ray Miller of Columbus called “the genius of us.”
Should Congress take up Facebook regulation, it will remain a tough call to find middle ground between meeting the needs of a jittery public with only techno speak and concepts. Perhaps this discussion makes it all more complicated than it needs to be, but one size in legislation doesn’t fit all when it comes to something that’s become so much a part of our daily routine.
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.