We Need a PBS for Social Media

Mark Coatney at the New York Times: “Social media is an opportunity wrapped in a problem. YouTube spreads propaganda and is toxic to children. Twitter spreads propaganda and is toxic to racial relationsFacebook spreads propaganda and is toxic to democracy itself.

Such problems aren’t surprising when you consider that all these companies operate on the same basic model: Create a product that maximizes the attention you can command from a person, collect as much data as you can about that person, and sell it.

Proposed solutions like breaking up companies and imposing regulation have been met with resistance: The platforms, understandably, worry that their profits might be reduced from staggering to merely amazing. And this may not be the best course of action anyway.

What if the problem is something that can’t be solved by existing for-profit media platforms? Maybe the answer to fixing social media isn’t trying to change companies with business models built around products that hijack our attention, and instead work to create a less toxic alternative.

Nonprofit public media is part of the answer. More than 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, committing federal funds to create public television and radio that would “be responsive to the interests of people.”

It isn’t a big leap to expand “public media” to include not just television and radio but also social media. In 2019, the definition of “media” is considerably larger than it was in 1967. Commentary on Twitter, memes on Instagram and performances on TikTok are all as much a part of the media landscape today as newspapers and television news.

Public media came out of a recognition that the broadcasting spectrum is a finite resource. TV broadcasters given licenses to use the spectrum were expected to provide programming like news and educational shows in return. But that was not enough. To make sure that some of that finite resource would always be used in the public interest, Congress established public media.

Today, the limited resource isn’t the spectrum — it’s our attention….(More)”.