How the Fairness Doctrine should apply to social networks

Simply put: social networks like Facebook are contributing to the polarization of American politics. The solution is not to break them up. The solution is to require them to expose members to a diversity of viewpoints.

Why is America so divided? Why, even now, are there partisans so desperately afraid of Biden’s election that they are willing to try almost any strategy to undo it?

I think the reason is that reality itself is fractured. Each of us has our own reality.

Part of that problem has to do with the news channels we watch. If you get your news from Fox News or Sinclair, you see a different reality from what you see on CNN or MSNBC. It’s not just opinions. The facts you perceive are different.

People choose their news channels. But on social media, there is no need to choose. If you are a Trump-loving conservative, you will see the opinions of other Trump-loving conservatives on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram, and on YouTube. If you are a Biden-loving liberal, you will similarly see people like yourself on these channels. Those people share opinions from their chosen set of facts. And this perpetuates the divided reality we operate from.

If America is to survive as a united nation, this must stop.

Breaking up social networks is not the solution

Politicians like Elizabeth Warren have called for breaking up large social networks and tech companies. Joe Biden says he is open to it. The Trump administration’s Justice Department has sued Google for anti-trust.

There are two problems with these plans.

First, breaking up companies is a blunt instrument. It punishes shareholders but doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.

Second, broken up companies will still create division in America. If YouTube is no longer part of Google, it can still show different realities to different viewers. If Facebook and Instagram are separated, they will perpetuate the same biases separately that they did when they were together.

Reinstate the Fairness Doctrine for social media

There used to be a rule called The Fairness Doctrine that the FCC put in place to regulate companies with public broadcast licenses. The Fairness Doctrine stated that broadcasters should present controversial issues of public importance in a fair and balanced way. One element of the Fairness Doctrine is what allowed people who objected to the broadcaster’s editorial stance to get time on air to present an opposing viewpoint. It was established in 1949 for radio and eventually extended to television.

The Fairness Doctrine is no longer in place; the FCC eliminated it as a policy in 1987 — partly because there were by then so many other places to get news and opinion.

Now, though, the gatekeepers for news and opinion have returned. They are social networks. And many people get their news based on what they see in their biased and filtered social media feeds.

I would propose a new set of policies that require social media providers to deliver a varied set of viewpoints, rather than a narrow set based on an algorithm that continues to feed everyone more of what they already get. Conservatives will see links to progressive content; progressives will see links to conservative content. And this policy would apply to all social networks — not just Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter, but also newer networks like TikTok and Parler. A social network would be required to comply if it wanted to continue operating in the United States.

The idea of the government regulating content is not new. Social networks must identify and block child pornography, for example. But the idea of regulating algorithms is new. There will certainly be a huge hue and cry about this idea.

But if the social networks want to remain in business and not broken up, the FCC should require them to comply.

The future of America as a single country — with a more diverse set of news sources for everyone — is at stake. Without it, it’s hard to see how we’ll be ever be able to see eye to eye with our fellow citizens in the future.

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  1. Interesting idea. Part of a solution, perhaps, but I don’t see this as The Solution. It’s not like there’s a lack of access to balanced information today. To paraphrase the old saying, “You can deliver so-called balanced content to anyone’s feed, but you can’t make ’em read it.”
    Sadly, I don’t think media are the cause of polarization. Politicians are.
    Social networks may be “contributing to the polarization of American politics,” but I suspect they’re merely presenting the messages coming from politicians and PACs.
    Breaking up or regulating media will come easily to politicians because they won’t touch the real solutions — campaign finance reform and term limits.

  2. I would pay to belong to a vanity site that allowed all posts so that I could decide what I want to see.

    I soundly reject the Fairness Doctrine as neither fair nor doctrine (that is the role of government). I like freedom too much.

    Chalk up your suggestion as a swing and a miss. And we are all better for it.

  3. Interesting post, Josh. The Fairness Doctrine sounds good on the surface, but I wonder if this would open the door to more regulation of social media. I don’t think they need to be regulated because a new one pops every year and we already have issues with domestic surveillance & data monitoring and further regulation would increase it. Some argue that the government should treat social networks as public utilities.

    The one thing that your solution doesn’t take into consideration is that with all of this information available to us, the American public still seems to be dumbing down and falling into groupthink both on the right & the left.