The Importance of Trust in a Republic and Its Increasing Vulnerability to Big Tech

September 11, 2019 Updated: September 11, 2019

Commentary

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of trust for friendship. Likewise, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of friendship for our personal lives and for the life of a healthy, self-governing republic.

Without friendships, our personal lives—no matter how prosperous otherwise—would be bleak. Of what lasting good are possessions and experiences if we have no one with whom to share them?

Without private, voluntary associations, our public life would be overwhelmed by the impersonal omnipresence of “the State.” Can you imagine if everything from Little League to religion was organized not by voluntary association but by the federal government?

And undergirding all friendships and associations is trust.

Over the past decade, people have increasingly digitized their relationships by connecting and communicating via social media and electronic messaging. Likewise, the trust at the foundation of all friendships is now more vulnerable than ever to influence from Big Tech.

Facebook, for example, recently implemented a new function to fact-check user’s posts. This new feature provides a revealing warning about the increase in vulnerability to the trust upon which all friendships depend.

Importance of Trust for Limited Government

In the United States, we believe that government should be limited because we know the State can’t meet all, and especially our highest needs, in life. For this reason, we treasure our republican form of government that allows for and even depends on friendships to flourish in both public and private spheres. The task of self-government is often performed by private citizens, banded together in voluntary civil associations of all sorts from the Humane Society to religious charities.

Just as friendships—as rival loyalties to the State—are healthy for a republic, they are dangerous to a tyranny. As Aristotle noted, “A tyranny is not destroyed until some men come to trust each other,” because a revolution begins with two friends willing to die for the common cause. For this reason, tyrants try to undermine friendships—even between family members—by making everyone mistrust everyone else.

Facebook is by no means a tyrannical government, but neither is it entirely a politically neutral platform. Further, its overwhelming influence and popularity make Facebook a potential tool for tyrants.

Facebook recently implemented a new function aimed to reduce the dissemination of what its third-party fact-checkers deem “fake news.” Now, if you post an article that Facebook considers suspect, your friends will see a small window with “related articles” below your post.

This new function is meant to warn your friends that the post you just shared has been declared officially dubious. Facebook then generously directs your friends to articles that are officially approved on the same topic.

Facebook hopes that this new function will mitigate the impact of your sharing “fake news,” by warning your friends that you just shared something that certain fact-checkers think people should take with a grain of salt.

Two Problems With Facebook’s New Feature

There are two problems with this new feature. First, outsourcing fact-checking to a third party doesn’t guarantee unbiased reporting. Trying to correct allegedly biased “fake news” with allegedly unbiased “fact-checkers” is like Brer Rabbit trying to attack a tar baby with kicks and punches: It only makes the situation worse.

The Latin poet Juvenal’s classic question remains relevant: quis custodiet ipsos custodes (Who is guarding the guardians themselves?).

Or, in today’s parlance, who is fact-checking the fact-checkers?

For example, Snopes is among the fact-checkers that Facebook will supposedly rely on for flagging “fake news” articles. Snopes infamously has flagged the conservative satirical news site Babylon Bee as “fake news” in the past, and Facebook has had to apologize for threatening to censor the Bee after taking Snopes’s fact-checking of the Bee seriously.

Evidently, Snopes didn’t get the Bee’s jokes. Why should we expect that fact-checkers such as Snopes won’t turn Facebook’s new feature itself into a joke?

A second and more disturbing problem with this feature is that flagging certain posts as “fake news” will likely just discredit certain users in the eyes of their friends—breaking down trust—rather than actually challenging their assertions with evidence and argument.

As Josh Constine wrote on TechCrunch in 2017, when Facebook was first testing this new feature, “Essentially, rather than trying to convince someone that what they just read might be exaggerated, overly biased, or downright false, Facebook wants to raise people’s suspicions before they’re indoctrinated with lies and embellishments.”

In other words, Facebook will simply delegitimize the status of your friend by implanting the suspicion that he or she isn’t a trustworthy source of information. Likely, people won’t even bother reading an article that has been flagged by a fact-checker. There are so many other articles, after all.

In ancient Athens, the assembly of citizens could vote to exile a citizen and force him to leave the city if they believed his presence a threat. Today, it’s easy to see how someone could be quietly ostracized on social media with the help of fact-checkers, without that person ever knowing. They’ll just slowly drift into irrelevance as Facebook suggests to their friends that they’re no longer trustworthy.

Alexis de Tocqueville, author of “Democracy in America,” described how despotism might take shape in this form. The voice of the majority (or in the case of Facebook, the one that controls the platform of public opinion) says to any dissident: “Your life, your goods, everything remains to you; but from this day on, you are a stranger among us. … You shall remain among men, but you shall lose your rights of humanity. When you approach those like you, they shall flee you as being impure; and those who believe in your innocence, even they shall abandon you, for one would flee them in their turn. Go in peace, I leave you your life, but I leave it to you worse than death.”

We are beginning to recognize the immense power that the demigods of Big Tech wield over the lives of billions of people. We should note also that this influence reaches to the very foundation of the friendships and associations that bind people together.

The most important thing in any relationship is trust. Should we trust Facebook and its third-party fact-checkers to be good stewards of such an important thing for our lives and for our republic?

Clifford Humphrey is originally from Warm Springs, Georgia. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @cphumphrey.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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