If you were even semi-conscious during the last two years, you’ll know that social media can wreak havoc on a functioning democracy. Facebook is finally admitting that it’s part of the problem. Facebook also wants you to believe in an imaginary future, a hypothetical someday when Mark Zuckerberg figures out how to stop his social network from enabling cyberwar and genocide, but the social network stops short of explaining how it’s going to get there.
Facebook just published the first in a series of blog posts about social media and democracy. Specifically, the company is attempting to highlight ways in which social media platforms, such as Facebook itself, could be not only be beneficial but actually harmful to democratic institutions and basically any open society. You’re probably already familiar with the main arguments that make up that larger point. Sites such as Facebook promote confirmation bias, encourage echo chambers, spread false information, and enable malicious state actors to interfere with other nations’ politics.
These things are all bad for democracy. In introducing the series, Facebook’s global politics and government outreach director Katie Harbath admits flatly that there was “foreign interference that Facebook should have been quicker to identify to the rise of ‘fake news’ and echo chambers” in the 2016 US election. This sentiment slightly contradicts what Zuckerberg as been saying for a year. Responding to Donald Trump claiming that Facebook was “anti-Trump”, Zuckerberg admitted last September that he shouldn’t have been so dismissive of these fake news claims. Still, the Facebook founder maintained that Facebook’s role in the US election was more positive than negative.
This aw-shucks blog series, apparently pegged to the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s election, is only slightly more sceptical. The first two posts in the series come from Facebook product manager Samidh Chakrabarti and Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein, both of whom have a pretty rosy outlook on the future of social media and democracy. It’s unclear when Facebook will publish the next two blog posts, but they will be written by Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, and Ariadne Vromen, a professor at the University of Sydney.
Chakrabarti, to his credit, is quick to identify the very bad problems that Facebook and others are causing for democracies worldwide. However, the meat of his post is about how Facebook is also good for politics sometimes. Look at this:
During the last US election, we created Voting Plan, a tool to preview your local ballot and discuss it with friends. Millions of people did so. On average this increased people’s knowledge of their ballot by over 6%. That’s equivalent to raising the average ballot knowledge of the entire US Facebook community by a few grade levels.
What does “raising the average ballot knowledge… by a few grade levels” actually mean? We may never know. It sure sounds better than reports that Facebook is fuelling genocide in Myanmar by letting a despotic leader spread hate speech. In fact, nobody’s mentioned the situation in Myanmar yet in Facebook’s series about social media and democracy. Trump and Russia seem to be the focus.
Sustein, who has the second blog in the series, is a little bit more critical of Facebook. Right out of the gate, the Harvard Law professor takes aim at the News Feed’s dangerous promise to “give you the most personalised experience”. Sustein says, “From the standpoint of democracy, that’s a nightmare.” If people only ever see posts that you agree with, they become dangerously entrenched in that viewpoint. This leads to a rise in polarisation and extremism. One need look no further than the reincarnation of mainstream white supremacy to see how frightening these trends can be.
The thing is, a lot of people already knew all this stuff. Some, including former Facebook president Sean Parker, have been shouting very loudly about the danger Facebook, in its current state, presents to society. So you have to wonder what exactly the social network hopes to accomplish by letting famous academics and its own employees speak out about Facebook and democracy. It seems like a way of addressing the problem without actually addressing it. Sustein – who’s promoting a new book on social media and democracy, by the way – sort of nods at this idea of doing something by doing nothing in the conclusion of his blog post. It reads:
As with automobiles, so with social media: We’re a lot better off with them than without them, but aggregate judgments are an obstacle to improvement. So John Dewey gets the last word: “I would not minimise the advance scored in substitution of methods of discussion and conference for the method of arbitrary rule. But the better is too often the enemy of the still better.”
The Dewey quote is ridiculous, right? It’s as if to say, “Hey at least we’re talking!” However that automobile comparison is richer than the Harvard law professor lets it be. Automobiles certainly changed the course of history, enabling a level of technological progress mankind had never seen before. They also sparked countless wars over oil and led to climate change that threatens to devastate the entire planet. So cars, like social media, are cool. They’re also ruining the world.