December 7, 2023

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The President of the United States and one of America’s most powerful corporations are like spouses arguing over dirty socks: they avoid the real problem.

Last week, President Biden and Facebook had a battle of words over misinformation about vaccines. Each side took an extreme position that distracted them and us from a deeper problem: Americans are so divided that it is difficult to even face our problems. We have seen this with the pandemic, climate change, violent crime and more.

I wish all of us, our elected executives, and the tech companies that convey our discourse, that everyone stick to what they can do to find common ground.

To sum up the resentment, President Biden said late last week that internet networks like Facebook are “killing people” because he believes they are not doing enough to stop spreading misleading information about Covid-19 or vaccines against the virus. Facebook shot back for helping save lives by amplifying authoritative coronavirus intelligence, saying the White House was trying to divert blame for missing its vaccination goals.

President Biden fell back with his provocative language, but the White House continued to press Facebook to do more, including providing information on the prevalence of coronavirus misinformation on the social network. My colleague Sheera Frenkel reported that Facebook actually doesn’t have this data, partly because the company hasn’t tried much to find out.

Already exhausted? I am. My former colleague Charlie Warzel called this a “great example of social media influenced and flattened discourse that poisons us all”.

Both Facebook and the White House are a little bit right and wrong, as my colleague Cecilia Kang said in The Daily this week.

On the White House side, officials began nuanced suggestions from the surgeon general for improving health information, including recommendations for government officials and social media companies. It was basically forgotten when the president and other officials began indiscriminately blaming Facebook.

Facebook is also a little bit right and wrong. Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview published Thursday that the public does not view a police agency as a failure when crime is greater than zero, implying that Facebook cannot be expected to get rid of any bad information or incitement to violence. This is a fair point, and it begs questions about what Zuckerberg and the rest of us consider acceptable levels of misinformation and other outrageous behavior on the website, and how the company measures success.

But it would be helpful if Facebook did more to acknowledge an inconvenient truth: Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter play important roles in informing the public and in misinforming the public. It would also be helpful if the company just said out loud what Sheera reported – that it is unaware of the spread of misleading coronavirus information on its social network and cannot answer White House questions.

This analysis would help improve our collective understanding of the dissemination of information online, just as Facebook’s (belated and reluctant) self-assessment of Russian propaganda surrounding the 2016 US election has improved our collective knowledge of foreign influence campaigns.

But if Facebook told us tomorrow how much misleading information is circulating about the coronavirus, Americans would still be arguing about the meaning of the data and what to do about it.

And we would repeat the same arguments about who is responsible for misinformation, the limits of freedom of expression, and whether social platforms do too much or too little to control what is said on their sites.

The basic problem is that we have so little in common. We don’t all agree on how much to focus on a virus that killed more than 600,000 Americans or how to balance preventive measures that have disrupted people’s lives and the economy. We do not agree on whether and how we can slow down climate change and are not prepared to deal with the consequences together. It seems that we can only agree that the other side cannot be trusted.

Are the business models and algorithms of social media companies to blame, people who want to make money quickly, irresponsible politicians who play with our emotions, or our fear of getting sick or penniless? Yes.

This should not dissuade anyone or any company from cultivating an environment of mistrust. But there is no simple answer to what misinformation researcher Renée DiResta has described as a societal problem.

That is why days of bickering between the White House and Facebook do not get us any further. We fixate on scoring points in arguments and details like missing data and ignore the much bigger picture. We can’t agree on anything important. We don’t trust each other. That is the real problem that we have to solve.

  • Rich guys in space: The Internet was once the exclusive domain of big governments – until technology managers made it a place for billions of people. Now technologists like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk want to do the same for space, write my colleagues David Streitfeld and Erin Woo.

    Related: The Amazon founder’s space flight this week made Bezos the “Dorian Gray of stupidity,” says Jacob Bernstein.

  • Get ready to repair your own tractor! (If you want.) The Federal Trade Commission voted to support the “right to repair” principle, the idea that manufacturers of smartphones, household appliances, and agricultural equipment should not prevent people from buying parts and manuals for product repair. Big companies like Apple and John Deere have cost people and the planet by tightly controlling who can fix their products.

  • Just watch the bears: We all deserve live web feed from bears doing bear things, Insider says.

It’s a horse. Wearing horse tights. Made from human blue jeans.

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