Social networks are changing democracy! In 2016 we have witnessed how the “unthinkable” became reality – how UK decided to part ways with European Union and how against almost all predictions Donald Trump, a property tycoon and reality television star, was elected US commander-in-chief. In 2016 the “war for votes” was raging on not only in the conventional battle ground, but also in the digital environment – especially in social networks and social media. Although many digital tools have significantly contributed to strengthening democratic values by empowering individuals and likeminded groups, some aspects of these technologies may be bringing more harm than good. We are only starting to understand the effect that social networks and other new forms of media can have on democracy and politics, but even now it is clear that we don’t have time to waste.
It has been a common knowledge already for a while that social networks can have a significant impact – they can give voice and power for people who have neither. For example, according to Deen Freelon of the American University in Washington, DC, social networks played a crucial role in getting the Black Lives Matter – a movement fighting police violence against African-Americans, off the ground. Maybe even more important was the role social media and networks played in shaping political debates in Arab Spring. It wouldn’t be that difficult to find countless other positive examples of how social media and social networks have empowered change and social progress, for example, social media facilitated political mobilization in civil unrest in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, the Maidan protests in Ukraine and the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, all in 2013 or 2014. But looking only at the positive examples can leave an overly positive and quite possibly misleading impression about the impact of social networks. Unfortunately, there are some reasons to be if not skeptical, then at least to realistically assess the impact social media has on democracy.
Echo chambers and fake news
One of the problematic aspects of social media and social networks in relation to healthy democracy might be the echo chambers they are creating. And it is not a problem affecting only social media and social networks, but a problem affecting internet in general. As elegantly formulated by Mostafa M. El-Bermawy from WIRED: “the internet that was used during Arab spring in 2011 is different from the internet that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump”. An echo chamber describes a situation when ideas, information and/or beliefs are amplified by repetition inside an enclosed system. For some of us that perfectly sums up our digital existence in social networks – the algorithm shows us only the content we are likely to like, in other words, the content similar to the one we have consumed before. This in turn leads to another connected problem – the confirmation bias – the psychological tendency for people to embrace new information as affirming their pre-existing beliefs and to ignore evidence that doesn’t.
These problems are exacerbated by the ease of which fake media content can be created and distributed in digital environment. According to the BuzzFeed News, in the final three months of US presidential campaign, the top performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement then the top news stories from major news outlets. The 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook, while the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites lagged behind with only 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments. The most popular of the false news stories were a story claiming Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and a hoax claiming the pope endorsed Trump. But the fake news were not popular only among the Trump supporters, e.g., the viral Trump quote calling Republicans ‘the dumbest group of voters’ was definitely fake as well and Ireland was not and still isn’t planning to accept ‘Trump immigrants’.
Tech or media company
Democrats did not hesitate with blaming Facebook and their fake news problem for their defeat in presidential election. Initially Zuckerberg was quick in dismissing any effect fake news could have on election results, stating that overwhelming majority (~99 %) of content is authentic and the fake content was not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. After couple of days Facebook did finally recognize the importance of fighting misinformation in their social network and informed about ongoing measures employed to mitigate the problem. Despite these efforts several sources have accused Facebook of doing far too little when it comes to combatting the spread of fake news stories, considering that a majority of US adults – 62 % – get news on social media. But what Facebook should be doing is partially conditional upon their status. A pressing question is whether Facebook and other social networks should be regarded only as tech companies or as something much more than just that.
In the last few months Facebook has been called in many different names — “a website,” “an internet company,” “a major player in the media universe,” “a strange new class of media outlet,” a “tech behemoth,” and even a “cesspool of nonsense”. Facebook itself has not been too eager in accepting their role as a media outlet and thus taking at least some responsibility that comes with it and persistently continues labelling themselves as only a tech company escaping any additional burden. This reluctance is quite understandable as the status of a media company and a place in the Fourth Estate comes with certain responsibilities when it comes to the content it disseminates. In a democratic society media as a cornerstone of the Fourth Estate is expected to act like watchdog, civic forum, and agenda-setter, holding elected officials to account and bound by longstanding liability laws. Fear of legal hurdles apparently is not the only reason for the reluctance to recognize oneself as a media company, it is also a matter of brand management, talent and revenue.
If everything is so bad with social media and social networks – they are riddled with fake news articles, we are all living in artificial echo chambers and no one has any power or willingness to do something about it – what is the way forward? Firstly, neither the echo chamber problem, fake news, nor the lack of regulatory oversight is a reason enough to dismiss social networks and social media as unfit for healthy democracy. It probably is not a very good idea to label all social networks as media companies and apply the same rules as for traditional journalism, but at the same time Facebook should accept the fact that it is already making billions of editorial decisions every day and should work on how to improve them. Facebook and other social media as a new source of journalism, should consider improving the algorithms they use to choose the content users see by reducing the importance of the “engagement” criteria. Secondly, users of social media and social networks should be more aware of the echo chambers they are living in and approach the available content with slightly more skepticism at the same time urging the networks to embrace their role in the Fourth Estate. Finally, social networks, social media and other influential tech companies should recognize these problems as something serious and deal with them accordingly before many of us have lost any faith in their ability to do so.
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