Pai Says He's Unsure Whether Social Media Benefits Outweigh Downside

FCC chair says platforms have enabled coarsening discourse

FCC chair Ajit Pai said he's unsure whether social media has been a "net benefit" to society, but noted that is a question folks should be pondering, and that he thinks the platforms have enabled trends toward uncivil discourse, including threats aimed at him and his family.

Pai's remarks wre part of a speech to the Media Institute in Washington Wednesday (Nov. 29), a day after he suggested that social media platforms like Twitter, not internet service providers, were the bigger threat to an open internet. Those comments came as Pai prepares to deregulate ISPs from Title II-based net-neutrality rules.

One sign that the threats to Pai and his family were being taken seriously were the two armed guards from the Department of Homeland Security who accompanied him to the Media Institute.

Pai showcased both sides of the social media coin.

He cited among the positive effects the #MeToo movement and the "surge" of women now sharing stories of "abuse and mistreatment at the hands of powerful men."

"Every day, it seems, we hear awful stories about men who treated women poorly (to say the least)," he said. "Social media has empowered many women in this cause."

The most recent news on that front Wednesday (Nov. 29) included NBC firing Today co-host Matt Lauer, Warner Bros. firing TV producer Andrew Kriesbergin (The Flash, Supergirl) and Minnesota Public Radio severing ties with Garrison Keillor, all in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.

"It’s given [women] a sense that they’re not alone in their experience and won’t be abandoned if they go public," said Pai. "That’s a good thing. I hope more of them come forward. I hope our culture shines a bright light on disgusting conduct that for too long thrived in the shadows — especially to help those women who continue to suffer in silence, like hotel workers and restaurant servers."

But the downside of social media, he said, includes harassment, threats and unfiltered rage online, including some directed at him and his family over the net-neutrality issue.

"Is social media a net benefit to American society?," he asked his audience. "Given the increasingly important role that social media plays in our daily lives, this is a question that all of us, including groups like the Media Institute, need to grapple with. Now, I will tell you up front that I don’t have an answer.  And I won’t touch on particular policy issues, like social media’s role in elections. What I have in mind is something broader."

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Pai said two trends have lowered discourse, both enabled by social media. First, he said, politics infuses everything, from entertainment to natural disasters, suggesting those and other issues had been "tainted" by politics. Then, he said, everyone is expected to have an opinion, whether they do or not. He said politics was once the third-rail of casual conversation, but that now "any and all interactions are now fair game for ferreting out whether your opinions entitle you to simple pleasantries, let alone friendship."

Pai said the second trend is that the virtual is displacing the real.

"As we’ve become more accustomed to interacting on the Internet, we don’t prioritize or experience in-person conversations as much," he said, "and with the lack of personal contact, we’ve forgotten the mores that we used to learn through face-to-face conversations — mores like civility and tolerance."

Pai didn't say he had a magic solution, but "what I do know is that we can’t allow the strident rudeness of an angry few to overwhelm what I continue to believe is the quiet decency of most Americans."

'Multichannel News' blogger Gary Arlen contributed to this report.