The danger of an unedited democracy

Computer keyboard. Photo by Scott Berson
Computer keyboard. Photo by Scott Berson

One of the most important editorial decisions in the country was made this week not by a journalist, a publisher, or a television producer, but by an internet security guru.

Chris Prince, the guy who runs the online service provider Cloudflare, decided to end his company’s work with the message board 8Chan. The site has become notorious for hosting the paranoid rantings of mass shooters and their vile fans. Investigators believe the alleged gunman in El Paso may have posted his ravings on 8Chan before slithering off to defend America by slaughtering Americans.

“We reluctantly tolerate content that we find reprehensible, but we draw the line at platforms that have demonstrated they directly inspire tragic events and are lawless by design,” Prince wrote in a blog post. “8chan has crossed that line.”

By withdrawing its services, Cloudflare essentially forced 8Chan offline. It echoed a similar decision Prince had to make two years ago, when he stopped providing services to the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer.

“We continue to feel incredibly uncomfortable about playing the role of content arbiter,” Prince wrote. “While we’ve been successful as a company, that does not give us the political legitimacy to make determinations on what content is good and bad.”

We used to have a lot of people with the confidence to make those decisions about good and bad content. They were called editors, and they worked for newspapers, television shows, and book publishers.

The First Amendment gives you the right to engage in paranoid lunacy all you want, but it doesn’t give you the right to a platform and an audience. To get access to those things, you used to go through editors. They were the gatekeepers, the arbiters of taste and decency, the people charged with keeping hateful garbage out of the public square. With the decline of traditional media, there are a lot fewer of them than there used to be.

Editors weren’t perfect, to be sure. I write for a living, and I have spent plenty of time arguing with editors about the obvious brilliance of my ideas and the wrongness of theirs. But there’s value in those arguments, in weighing someone else’s view before broadcasting your own. Editors have bias and blindspots like everyone, but they also bring a long tradition and well-established guidelines to role of content arbiter.

We’ve now largely traded those civic-minded experts for a handful of tech titans who have absolutely zero interest in litigating the messy boundaries of public discourse. Debating the finer points of democratic responsibility is much less profitable than allowing people to just post whatever they want.

Alexis Madrigal, a writer for The Atlantic, summed it up nicely in a documentary about the rise of Facebook and other online platforms: “They took over the role of editing without ever taking on the responsibilities of editing.”

Editorial judgement demands a very different set of skills from those normally prized in the tech world. Civic life, with its emphasis on methodical checks and balances, is a far cry from the move-fast-and-break-things ethos of Silicon Valley.

It’s telling that Prince, the Cloudflare executive at the center of this week’s debate, is an exception to the rule. He’s the CEO of an internet infrastructure firm, but he’s also a former law professor. He majored in both English and Computer Science in college, crossing the disciplinary boundaries that often divide coding geeks from humanities nerds.

There’s no easy way to resolve the clash between the free-for-all online world and the editorial judgment needed in a healthy democracy. But it has to begin with more people like Prince, techies who understand that civic responsibilities are now an unavoidable part of the job.

In the meantime, the rest of us can recruit out our own editors — the friends, spouses, and colleagues we might consult before tossing a grenade into the online conversation.

Unedited writing tends to be a mess. Unedited democracy is no different.

Eric Johnson is a contributing columnist for The Editorial Board.

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