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What Facebook, Google and Twitter Could Learn from Herbert Hoover

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It is said that when Herbert Hoover* was accosted by a woman who blamed him for the Great Depression, to her astonishment he thanked her for attributing to him so much power.   Displaying such grace, humility, and humor would be smart at this juncture for Facebook, Google, and Twitter.  But it is, alas, not very likely.

All three of them now find themselves between a rock and a hard place.  W.r.t the current furor over Russian use of their platforms to manipulate the public, they can take the position that by any reasonable metric,  such activity was a vanishingly small percentage of their total activity and is therefore much ado about nothing.   Of course, there’s an obvious problem with heading down this path: implicitly it suggests that if the amount of such nefarious activity were much greater, there would be legitimate cause for concern.   They surely must understand that the Russian government (and others) can easily shield themselves from whatever reporting rules might be imposed by congress by doing things like hiring American citizens to promote a particular agenda, and laundering the money as necessary to avoid detection. Ditto for political parties, and other special interests. The specter of large amounts of cumbersome and constraining regulation looms menacingly down this route.

Alternately they could decide to take a page out of Herbert Hoover’s book, and say that really all they are doing is making it easier for friends and family to stay in touch with another, and perhaps to connect with other likeminded people. Thus they are not really influencing public opinion, only drawing people closer to one another within an organic and largely pre-existing social circle or network.  Otherwise put, they may be responsible for increasing the strength of the reality distortion field that surrounds many of these circles, but not creating it in the first place.   By this logic, they are well out of harm’s way with respect to anything to do with the election, since the votes of most of these circles were homogeneous within the circle and largely pre-determined in what was an extremely polarized election.

This would be an eminently sensible position – especially in light of the fact that their collective influence on the president election was not arguably very much: they surely did not want a Trump victory.  But this route also poses a large problem: it calls into question for their advertisers how much influence they actually do have in a variety of contexts.  That could have profound consequences over time.

*= I think it was Hoover – the historical anecdotal is not easily retrievable. If not it was Calvin Coolidge, but either way, the point remains the same.

 

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