Now social media grows a conscience?

Published On Dec 21, 2020

Propelled by the nation’s stunned reaction to last week’s violent siege of the Capitol, social media companies have sought to separate themselves from President Donald Trump and lawmakers who were complicit in the riots.

Twitter banned Trump, while Facebook indefinitely suspended him and YouTube prevented new uploads for a week. Other tech companies stopped doing business with Parler, where would-be insurgents had found a comfortable home.

The actions, a long time coming, are sure to limit the appearance of some of the most inflammatory posts and tweets, particularly leading up to the presidential inauguration. But until social media companies are willing to fundamentally change their sites by making them far less attractive to people seeking to post divisive content, deeply troubling posts will continue to spread quickly and broadly.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are trying to claim the mantle of champions of free speech and impartial loudspeakers for whoever has a deeply held conviction. The truth is that they are businesses, driven by quarterly results and Wall Street’s insatiable desire for ever greater sales and profits.

That’s the central tension at the root of the troubles with social media and civil society: The most divisive, misinformed content tends to keep users on the sites longer — which is essential for harvesting data that leads to highly targeted advertising.