Pai: Can't Say Whether Social Media Is Net Societal Benefit

Praises pro-social uses, but says it has enabled coarsening discourse

FCC chair Ajit Pai says he can't say whether social media has been a "net benefit" to society, but does say it is a question folks should be pondering, and that he thinks trends toward un-civil discourse have been enabled by social media, including threats aimed at him and his family. 

That came in a speech to the Media Institute in Washington Wednesday (Nov. 29), and a day after he suggested that social media platforms like Twitter, not internet service providers, was the bigger threat to an open internet. That comes as he prepares to deregulate ISPs from Title II-based net neutrality rules.

Related: Warner: Government Has Been Incapable of Meeting Social Media Threat

One sign that the threats to the chairman were being taken serious were the two armed guards from the Department of Homeland Security that accompanied the chairman.

Pai showcased both sides of the social media coin.

He cited among the pro-social 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). Social media has empowered many women in this cause," he said. 

The most recent news on that front was the firing Wednesday (Nov. 29) of Today co-host Matt Lauer in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.

"It’s given them 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, he said, was the harassments, 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."

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, 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."

The chairman 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."

Gary Arlen contributed to this report