Our News Feeds Are Toxic

Banning Trump is just the first step in cleaning up our media environment

Facebook has upheld the banning of President Trump from its platform. Great, I say. But there’s more it has to do to make things right:

The polluter has to pay.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from two decades of environmental reporting it’s this simple rule. When industries like coal and oil are allowed to reap extraordinary profits from the environment without paying for the cost of the damage they inflict they have zero incentive to behave as responsible members of society.

In the last few years I’ve been writing more and more about the Tech Industry and increasingly I’m coming to the same conclusion with respect to polluters of the media environment. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media companies are the major conduits through which fake news and incitements to intolerance pour into the nation’s collective reservoir of consciousness. And yet as things stand today the companies that are most responsible for dumping media toxic waste are the the least liable under the law. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act states “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In other words, right now, the owners of all those pipes that are dumping all that toxicity into our media environment explicitly don’t pay.

As we move to undo the most poisonous legacies of the Trump administration, it’s imperative that we reform our media laws so that they more closely behave like environmental laws. We have a Clean Water Act that prohibits the dumping of harmful chemicals and refuse into our waterways. We need our Communications Decency Act to behave more like a Clean Media Act — a law that would make the polluter pay, not only for the cost of dirtying the environment but for the time and expense it takes to clean it up.

To extend the metaphor it’s worth looking a bit more deeply into what makes The Clean Water Act so effective. The Clean Water Act pledges that the major waterways of the United States should be “swimmable and fishable.” Americans should be able to immerse themselves in American waters without getting sick and draw value from those same waters. The media environment should be similarly clean. We should be able to spend time immersing ourselves in news and not be sickened by calls to violence and discrimination. And like a fisherman fishing in clean water, we should be able to draw usable value from our media waterways. We should not have a media environment like Russia’s, so spoiled by misinformation that citizens find themselves unable to make informed choices in their day-to-day lives.

With the fishable and swimmable premise established for the media environment we can follow the Clean Water Act’s guidance even further. The Clean Water Act focuses on regulating “point source polluters” — entities that introduce pollution directly into the environment — the pipe owners themselves. When the EPA seeks to punish an automobile plant for dumping leftover car paint into a river, they fine the plant not the autoworker who painted the car. The same should hold true for the owners of the media pipes — the Facebooks, Twitters and YouTubes of the world. Sure the guy who made an islamaphobic, fact-free meme is culpable. But even if you succeed in tracking down and punishing the meme-maker (good luck on that one), the pipes remain unfiltered and ready to spill more bile. That’s why we need to police the Media Outflow Pipe Owners (MOPO’s?) so that they in turn police the bad actors using their platforms.

MOPO’s should also have to pay for remediation and repair of the environment they’ve polluted. Dirty Media, like dirty water, has downstream effects — sickening the thoughts of young people, corroding the pipes and bridges of society, building up like DDT in our minds over time — and so we need to figure out a precise mechanism for making polluters pay. Judges in Clean Water Act rulings typically set fines by using a predetermined unit environmental cost of, say, a spilled barrel of oil and then multiplying that unit cost out by the number of barrels spilled. It was through this kind of calculation that British Petroleum was required to pay $20 billion fine after it leaked more than three million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, tech companies will undoubtedly claim that they can’t really control how misinformation spreads throughout their networks. But I’m pretty sure if Twitter were liable for each instance a hateful meme was shared, the company would figure out a best available technology to scrub that meme from its platform ASAP.

Lastly, should a MOPO be found to be irredeemably toxic the government should have the authority to create something equivalent to a SuperFund site out of it. It shouldn’t only be up to Apple to ban Parler from its sales platforms. The media equivalent of nuclear waste needs government containment, oversight and continued monitoring until its half-life diminishes to something approaching harmless.

Admittedly all of this is a tall order. If the government does choose to abolish section 230 from the Communications Decency Act there is sure to be intense blowback from Tech. That’s because a large part of their business model relies on not being liable for the damages they themselves are causing. But fixing this problem is an urgent imperative. The very existence of good governance depends on it.

More of my thoughts on media and/or the environment in my two new books Goodbye Phone, Hello World and The Climate Diet

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet: Fifty Simple Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint paulgreenberg.org

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