Media, part 2: examining social media

Jan. 29, 2021
By Dale Kovar


A hardware store sells a hammer.

The person who buys it can go pound some nails and build a beautiful structure. Or he/she can use it to vandalize property, or even injure or kill people.

In either case, the hardware store cannot take credit or be blamed for what the consumer does with the tool.


Some years ago, there was a case in which students claimed they were being censored because they could not write what they wanted to in the school newspaper.

The eventual decision was that since the school district owned and financed the school newspaper, it was the “publisher” and thus was entitled to control what content was in it.

The students still had their right of free speech; they would just have to find other forums to speak or write in.

Social media companies

If you are able, watch The Social Dilemma currently available on Netflix. (Or see www.thesocialdilemma.com)

It provides a look inside the social media industry – how it functions and benefits, and how it influences your behavior, whether you know it or not.

One explanation is that “if you aren’t paying for a product, you are the product.”

Social media companies have a huge amount of information about you – not only your contact info and location, but meticulously tracked data about what you look at and for how long, as well as who you associate with.

It’s all used to show you ads based on your interests and habits. The ads cost just pennies, but it happens billions of times over.

By first customizing the content you get based on your personal viewing history, it first demands your attention, then follows with related ads in hopes of a response. Industry insiders admit it’s high-level manipulation.

Despite the privacy policies, we should pause to consider if it’s wise to allow these huge corporations to have that much information about us. By using their tools, we do allow it.

Remember: you are the product.

Putting it together

Most disturbing these past few months is that these social media companies started what appeared to be censoring content – adding warning labels to certain posts, or even blocking certain accounts completely.

We’ll pick on Twitter for this example, but Facebook and others are equally involved.

Reasoning it out, I have to conclude that Twitter can do what it wants.

But – emphasis here – the crucial point is that once Twitter started affecting the content, Twitter is no longer a “tool” but has taken on the function of being a “publisher.”

If an entity is making decisions and affecting or controlling content, it is a publisher, and must be responsible for all content, not just some of it.

Therefore, Twitter should be accountable for every word that everyone says on its platform, including any legal responsibility for libel, etc.

The choice

As publishers, we make content decisions every day and every week about what does and doesn’t go into our newspapers.

We are the gatekeepers for what we judge you will like or would rather not have. Hopefully you are satisfied and will continue to subscribe.

Let’s apply the same standard to social media companies, particularly since they’ve chosen to become publishers rather than just tools.

The question becomes if they provide enough value in your life vs. the content decisions they make. Are you willing to cancel your account over it, or doesn’t it matter that much?

Either way, understanding that they are functioning as publishers by controlling content is vital to keep in mind.

See previous media column here

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