The End of Real Social Networks

Essay by Daron Acemoglu: “Social media platforms are not only creating echo chambers, propagating falsehoods, and facilitating the circulation of extremist ideas. Previous media innovations, dating back at least to the printing press, did that, too, but none of them shook the very foundations of human communication and social interaction.

CAMBRIDGE – Not only are billions of people around the world glued to their mobile phones, but the information they consume has changed dramatically – and not for the better. On dominant social-media platforms like Facebook, researchers have documented that falsehoods spread faster and more widely than similar content that includes accurate information. Though users are not demanding misinformation, the algorithms that determine what people see tend to favor sensational, inaccurate, and misleading content, because that is what generates “engagement” and thus advertising revenue.

As the internet activist Eli Pariser noted in 2011, Facebook also creates filter bubbles, whereby individuals are more likely to be presented with content that reinforces their own ideological leanings and confirms their own biases. And more recent research has demonstrated that this process has a major influence on the type of information users see.

Even leaving aside Facebook’s algorithmic choices, the broader social-media ecosystem allows people to find subcommunities that align with their interests. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are the only person in your community with an interest in ornithology, you no longer have to be alone, because you can now connect with ornithology enthusiasts from around the world. But, of course, the same applies to the lone extremist who can now use the same platforms to access or propagate hate speech and conspiracy theories.

No one disputes that social-media platforms have been a major conduit for hate speech, disinformation, and propaganda. Reddit and YouTube are breeding grounds for right-wing extremism. The Oath Keepers used Facebook, especially, to organize their role in the January 6, 2021, attack on the United States Capitol. Former US President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets were found to have fueled violence against minorities in the US.

True, some find such observations alarmist, noting that large players like Facebook and YouTube (which is owned by Google/Alphabet) do much more to police hate speech and misinformation than their smaller rivals do, especially now that better moderation practices have been developed. Moreover, other researchers have challenged the finding that falsehoods spread faster on Facebook and Twitter, at least when compared to other media.

Still others argue that even if the current social-media environment is treacherous, the problem is transitory. After all, novel communication tools have always been misused. Martin Luther used the printing press to promote not just Protestantism but also virulent anti-Semitism. Radio proved to be a powerful tool in the hands of demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin in the US and the Nazis in Germany. Both print and broadcast outlets remain full of misinformation to this day, but society has adjusted to these media and managed to contain their negative effects…(More)”.