by Brandon Butler
Obama: Social media is “making editorial choices” 11/16/2020

Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic, ‘Why Obama Fears for Our Democracy‘:

He traces the populist shift inside the Republican Party to the election that made him president. It was Sarah Palin, John McCain’s 2008 running mate, he said, who helped unleash the populist wave: “The power of Palin’s rallies compared with McCain’s rallies—just contrast the excitement you would see in the Republican base. I think this hinted at the degree to which appeals around identity politics, around nativism, conspiracies, were gaining traction.”

The populist wave was abetted by Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, he said, and encouraged to spread by social-media companies uninterested in exploring their impact on democracy. “I don’t hold the tech companies entirely responsible,” he said, “because this predates social media. It was already there. But social media has turbocharged it. I know most of these folks. I’ve talked to them about it. The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like The Atlantic, I do not think is tenable. They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not. The First Amendment doesn’t require private companies to provide a platform for any view that is out there.”

He went on to say, “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.”

President Obama is right: It doesn’t matter if you hire an editor for your newspaper or write an algorithm for your social media site, you are making biased decisions about what your audience is seeing. You’re not neutral and you need to take responsibility for either hiring a bad editor or writing a bad algorithm.

Related: On the first episode of Decoder with Nilay Patel, he and Mark Cuban have a very similar conversation about social media’s role and Section 230 protections. It’s worth listening to. (I meant to write about it earlier but I guess now I have.)

Back to President Obama: He’s been giving a lot of interviews this week, mostly promoting his new book, A Promised Land. (I’ve got it pre-ordered.) Apparently this is just a part one, which I didn’t know until I read the Atlantic story. He has a lot to say concerning his life and presidency, as you’d expect from someone as thoughtful and intelligent as he is. President Obama is one of my favorite public speakers, and I’m looking forward to spending a few weeks reading this. The Atlantic story is really good, too.