Is social media helping or stalling democracy?

Social media-facebook

A lot of people are blaming last week’s victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the U.S. presidential elections on social media, namely Facebook and to some extent Twitter, and their lack of control over the propagation of fake news.

Long story short, despite the results, they believe the American people wanted to elect Clinton, but propaganda and fake news sites promoted on social media led to Trump becoming the next president of the United States. At the very least, what it did was make things murky enough to disrupt the democratic process and trigger widespread protests across the country.

This is in stark contrast with the general perception of social media, which is touted as a tool to promote democracy and circumvent censorship in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. Let’s not forget that platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter had a pivotal role in overthrowing dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia, helped give coverage to the popular 2009 uprisings in Iran—where the media is heavily controlled by the state—and continue to raise awareness on the atrocities taking place in Syria.

So how do you explain this wide gap? It’s a bit complicated.

The commercial problem

Sadly, over the past years, social media has drifted some from being mainly social to becoming mainly commercial. At least that how it is in democracies, where overt censorship is not a problem. Everyone’s looking to get impressions and clicks on their posts and ads, and use social media to drive traffic to their money-making websites.

Some people irresponsibly create fake news with flashy headlines that draw attention, and they share that news on social media. Platforms such as Facebook have huge amounts of data on users and will find the right set of eyes to show to post to.

The result—scammers get a lot of clicks and ad impressions (read cash) and the social media users get loaded with misleading news that might eventually prod them into making a decision that they’ll regret in the future.

In case you haven’t heard, one of the many cases involved in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections was a group of Macedonian teenagers who started circulating news around social media about the pope voicing support for Trump.

Not enough is being done to remove fake news

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter take their duties very seriously when it comes to fighting terrorism or removing content that is deemed socially inappropriatesometimes to a fault.

But the same can’t be said about fake news.

Time and again, different Facebook executives have stipulated that FB is not a news platform. And that’s why they don’t allocate enough resources to the editorial team that moderates the trending news, while a media outlet would put a crack team of veterans instead of hiring novices.

No matter what is being stated by companies such as Facebook and Twitter, a considerable percentage of the population read their news from social media and rely on the algorithms and people that tweak the posts that appear on their timelines and trends.

That’s why controversy struck when news broke that the amateur team that controlled Facebook’s news were applying biases in selecting trending news, after which Facebook remove the team altogether and replaced it with an algorithm, which led to even more controversy.

There are still many flaws in the process that controls and vets news that is posted on Facebook, and thus fake news continues to encroach over social media and undermine the integrity of all the authentic content that is being posted by reliable sources, effectively harming a lot of things, including politics.

We’re living in isolated bubbles

Social media platforms have been designed to show us what we like based on our own preferences, the posts we react upon and the topics we’ve shown interest in.

For many people, this virtual bubble that social media creates around them represents the real world, and they effectively close themselves out from everything beyond, not recognizing them as reality. Even the data aggregators who were seeing signs of Trump winning the elections were denying them as software bugs and problems with data fed into the system.

This fact was best summed by Business Insider’s Biz Carson, who said that Silicon Valley was worried about the wrong bubble.

And that explains much of the shock that ensued after the results were declared.

Who’s to blame?

For years on, people are going to say that Facebook was to blame for Trump’s election. Though partly true, I would say that it’s an overstatement. The truth was what came out of the ballot boxes.

But if the Facebook model is broken today, it’s everybody’s fault.

Abusers are to be blamed as well for creating misleading content, as are users for being so narrow minded and falling for dumb headlines that are provocative. But in a byzantine world, where there will always be abuse, those who control the mechanics can play the most effective role in ensuring or undermining the health of a working system.

Therefore, social media companies should take some serious steps to ensure the fair use of their platform, and that starts by recognizing the fact that they’re responsible for the news that people read on a daily basis.

Timothy B. Lee’s article in Vox offers some excellent guidelines on where changes should start, and how Facebook—and others—can improve the integrity of the news they deliver to their audience.

There should definitely be some checks and balances involved to penalize the dissemination of fake news, a move that was declared today by Google and Facebook (a little late, maybe?).

So I guess it is wrong to say that Facebook or Twitter are stalling democracy. They’re helping it more than anything else, in the U.S. and everywhere else across the world. They just have some flaws that need to be fixed.

We learn from our mistakes and will correct them to ensure a better future. As I always like to say: This is technology, solving problems… and creating new ones.


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