At his recent rally in West Virginia, President Trump likened ordinary social media users to journalists, arguing that freedom of speech for the latter should mean freedom of speech for the former. Facebook seems to agree — except about the freedom of speech part.
Facebook recently revealed that it ranks the “trustworthiness” of regular people, just as it ranks the trustworthiness of news sources. Every Facebook user is assigned a “trustworthiness score” between one and zero, which drops if the social network believes users are contributing to “misinformation” on the platform.
This is an implicit acknowledgment of what was once acknowledged to be a core fact of the modern era — that in an age where members of the public have access to video recording, powerful cameras, and a global audience via the internet, anyone can be a journalist. All of the essential requirements for reporting the news are built into your smartphone.
Before they realized that right-wingers can use the internet too, the new era of citizen journalism was once celebrated by the mainstream media, who even attempted to co-opt the new trend. “36 stories that prove citizen journalism matters” is a headline from none other than CNN, for a 2013 story hyping its iReport project, which encourages ordinary citizens to submit stories and news reports online. New York Times editors, in 2012, spoke of a “golden age of storytelling” unlocked by the web, and encouraged journalists to look to Twitter for emerging stories. The far-left Guardian newspaper, in 2013, created a system to turn “user-generated content” into news.
You won’t find these old-media behemoths touting the value of citizen journalism today. They fear that the conservative citizen journalists who they once mocked as “pajamas media” (a term later embraced by conservative bloggers) have grown too powerful, as evidenced by the 2016 election. Now, the old media is frantically pressuring Facebook to restore their gatekeeping power and protect them from online upstarts.
But President Trump hasn’t forgotten.
“Every one of us is sort of like a newspaper, you have Twitter… Facebook … you can’t have censorship.”
“I’d rather have fake news like CNN than have anybody – including liberals, socialists … than have anybody stopped and censored.”
CNN is unlikely to echo the President’s tolerance, given that the network has already pressured social media companies to ban its critics and competitors.
In addition to banning their opponents, mainstream media has also been successful in forcing social media giants to give them a privileged position in their newsfeed rankings. In addition to the “trustworthiness” scores that Facebook will use to distinguish so-called “real news” from so-called “misinformation” (and will vastly favor the mainstream media), the social network is also going to begin directly funding and promoting CNN shows.
And the citizen journalists? Facebook is going to treat them like news organizations as well. But unlike Trump, who wants them to compete on an equal playing field, the world’s largest social network instead wants to use a largely hidden system to rank and censor them. Facebook has appointed itself as the editor-in-chief of you.
Not just by “trustworthiness”, by the way, but by a thousand other new behavioral measurements that Facebook will use to rank its users. It’s a similar concept to China’s “social credit rating,” which applies a ranking to every citizen in the country. It’s also quite similar to sci-fi dystopias like Black Mirror, one episode of which depicts a society where everyone receives a ranking determined by other people’s feedback. If anything, this is less democratic — Facebook, not your personal acquaintances, is in charge of your rating.
President Trump and Facebook are both treating ordinary social media users like journalists. On the facts, they’re both right: thanks to the web and smartphones, every citizen has the tools they need to broadcast news to the world. On the question of what to do about it, however, they are fundamentally at odds: the Masters of the Universe now want to silence, downrank, and discredit the citizen journalists of the digital era, whereas Trump wants to liberate them.