Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have failed their task of monitoring and moderating the content that appears on their sites; what’s more, they failed to do so well before they knew it was a problem. But their incidental cultivation of fringe views is an opportunity to recast their role as the services they should be rather than the platforms they have tried so hard to become.
The struggles of these juggernauts should be a spur to innovation elsewhere: While the major platforms reap the bitter harvest of years of ignoring the issue, startups can pick up where they left off. There’s no better time to pass someone up as when they’re standing still.
Asymmetrical warfare: Is there a way forward?
At the heart of the content moderation issue is a simple cost imbalance that rewards aggression by bad actors while punishing the platforms themselves.
To begin with, there is the problem of defining bad actors in the first place. This is a cost that must be borne from the outset by the platform: With the exception of certain situations where they can punt (definitions of hate speech or groups for instance), they are responsible for setting the rules on their own turf.
That’s a reasonable enough expectation. But carrying it out is far from trivial; you can’t just say “here’s the line; don’t cross it or you’re out.” It is becoming increasingly clear that these platforms have put themselves in an uncomfortable lose-lose situation.
If they have simple rules, they spend all their time adjudicating borderline cases, exceptions, and misplaced outrage. If they have more granular ones, there is no upper limit on the complexity and they spend all their time defining it to fractal levels of detail.
Both solutions require constant attention and an enormous, highly-organized and informed moderation corps, working in every language and region. No company has shown any real intention to take this on — Facebook famously contracts the responsibility out to shabby operations that cut corners and produce mediocre results (at huge human and monetary cost); YouTube simply waits for disasters to happen and then quibbles unconvincingly.