In the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Las Vegas today, the worst mass shooting in American history, most of us flocked to the Internet, starved for any morsel of information about the shooter’s identity and motives. On Twitter, InfoWars—the conspiracy site that still argues that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax perpetrated by the U.S. government—was catapulted into the coveted “Top News” slot, making it among the first things anyone turning to the platform for news would see.
Twitter allowing an InfoWars editor to define "Top News." pic.twitter.com/me9pZhJ7cT
— Ed Bott (@edbott) October 2, 2017
On Facebook, the far-right conspiracy buff known as The Gateway Pundit took the top spot on the network’s “crisis response” news page, ahead of NBC.
An NBC report is barely visible in second place. This is shit news judgment, and the algorithms responsible should resign. pic.twitter.com/0DCbI3BsB7
— Rob Pegoraro (@robpegoraro) October 2, 2017
Not to be outdone, Google pushed a story from the unhinged 4chan messageboard to the top of its news section, never mind that the person it identified as the shooter wasn’t.
Also, apparently Google is putting 4chan threads in their top story unit now? So, the number one hit for his name is a /pol/ thread. pic.twitter.com/OYwW6pbWvy
— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) October 2, 2017
Before you dismiss all of this as piffle, a triviality compared to the gravity of the event itself, consider the magnitude of our problem. Information—a precious resource without which the construction of common civic ground is virtually impossible—is currently controlled by a handful of digital Leviathans that are free, for fun and profit, to feed us poisonous bytes whenever they choose. For a few hours today, for example, courtesy of one of the world’s largest corporations, more than 77,000 people were convinced that a man named Geary Danley was the Vegas shooter, and that he had committed his terrible crime because he was a radical liberal violently protesting the election of Donald Trump.
This is not just fake news. It’s a public safety issue. And there’s one good way to solve it: Treat Facebook, Twitter, Google et al as what they really are: a public utility.
Just as we wouldn’t dare handing our city’s water supply exclusively to a private company unbound by regulations, just as we would never think of handing over our highway system to a multinational corporation to run as it sees fit, so we must no longer permit the exclusive purveyors of information to feed us foul and false matter. Private ownership worked well enough in an earlier age, with imperfect gatekeepers held in check by a mixture of cautious regulation and robust competition. In our current oligopoly, the old rules no longer apply. Facebook, Google, and Twitter are the channels through which an overwhelming number of us are fed the stories that, when digested, will make up our worldview. And these channels are simply too precious to leave to the free market whims of young men in hoodies.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, posted an apology for his company’s recent blunders, promising to do better. Today is yet another proof that Facebook isn’t serious about or capable of self-regulation. Zuckerberg’s apology mustn’t be accepted. It’s time to nationalize the network.