Is Social Media Killing Democracy?

Phil Howard at Culture Digitally: “This is the big year for computational propaganda—using immense data sets to manipulate public opinion over social media.  Both the Brexit referendum and US election have revealed the limits of modern democracy, and social media platforms are currently setting those limits. 

Platforms like Twitter and Facebook now provide a structure for our political lives.  We’ve always relied on many kinds of sources for our political news and information.  Family, friends, news organizations, charismatic politicians certainly predate the internet.  But whereas those are sources of information, social media now provides the structure for political conversation.  And the problem is that these technologies permit too much fake news, encourage our herding instincts, and aren’t expected to provide public goods.

First, social algorithms allow fake news stories from untrustworthy sources to spread like wildfire over networks of family and friends.  …

Second, social media algorithms provide very real structure to what political scientists often call “elective affinity” or “selective exposure”…

The third problem is that technology companies, including Facebook and Twitter, have been given a “moral pass” on the obligations we hold journalists and civil society groups to….

Facebook has run several experiments now, published in scholarly journals, demonstrating that they have the ability to accurately anticipate and measure social trends.  Whereas journalists and social scientists feel an obligation to openly analyze and discuss public preferences, we do not expect this of Facebook.  The network effects that clearly were unmeasured by pollsters were almost certainly observable to Facebook.  When it comes to news and information about politics, or public preferences on important social questions, Facebook has a moral obligation to share data and prevent computational propaganda.  The Brexit referendum and US election have taught us that Twitter and Facebook are now media companies.  Their engineering decisions are effectively editorial decisions, and we need to expect more openness about how their algorithms work.  And we should expect them to deliberate about their editorial decisions.

There are some ways to fix these problems.  Opaque software algorithms shape what people find in their news feeds.  We’ve all noticed fake news stories, often called clickbait, and while these can be an entertaining part of using the internet, it is bad when they are used to manipulate public opinion.  These algorithms work as “bots” on social media platforms like Twitter, where they were used in both the Brexit and US Presidential campaign to aggressively advance the case for leaving Europe and the case for electing Trump.  Similar algorithms work behind the scenes on Facebook, where they govern what content from your social networks actually gets your attention. 

So the first way to strengthen democratic practices is for academics, journalists, policy makers and the interested public to audit social media algorithms….(More)”.