Since misinformation surfaced on social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, companies like Facebook and Twitter have been closely watched and criticized. After all, fabricated news stories reached readers primarily through those channels.
This week, two of the company’s executives and a Harvard Law School professor examined the effects that social media use can have on democracy. Did they conclude the platforms are damaging democracy?
Absolutely not. So where’d we get that idea? The media.
We analyzed four media outlets that covered the new “Hard Questions” Facebook blog series. Three of them suggested social media platforms themselves may be damaging our democratic processes. Here are a few examples.
[The new blog series comes] amid a wave of concerns from lawmakers, voters and tech industry employees about the damage done to societies by Facebook and other massive online platforms. ( CNN)
Facebook can’t guarantee social media is good for democracy ( Fox News)
Facebook is many things, but good for democracy might not be one of them. (Mashable)The thing is, that’s not really what was said in those posts. For instance, this is what Facebook’s head of civic engagement, Samidh Chakrabarti, actually said:
If there’s one fundamental truth about social media’s impact on democracy it’s that it amplifies human intent — both good and bad. At its best, it allows us to express ourselves and take action. At its worst, it allows people to spread misinformation and corrode democracy.The difference may seem subtle, but it’s not. Chakrabarti accurately pointed to the problem: it’s people. In this sense, Engadget, the fourth outlet we analyzed, got it right:
But so far, this issue of [the effects of social media on democracy] seems to come to a similar conclusion as a recent [Hard Questions post] that tackled whether social media was good for mental health. It all depends on how you use it.In its posts, Facebook did acknowledge social media can have negative effects, but that doesn’t mean it’s ultimately damaging democracy. We’re the ones who give proper or improper use to the tools we have. And sure, tools can amplify our effects (both positive and negative); just compare a slingshot to an automatic weapon, and see the destruction each can create. But tools themselves aren’t the problem, and it’s not logical to think about it that way. How can we know this?
Simply take them out of the equation. Let’s say we eliminate all social media platforms in the world. Does that stop people from bullying each other? Not really, they just wouldn’t do it in a cyber context. If we eliminated all guns and weapons from the world, would that stop people from being violent? Unlikely.
If we stand a chance of overcoming things like hate and violence, and of telling misinformation from the truth, it has to start with rational, critical thinking. The media is probably our most powerful tool, because it can affect the masses in an instant. It can also enable or disable critical thinking. Articles like the ones we analyzed, which confound the issue Facebook is seeking to remedy, become part of the problem if they don’t adhere to responsible journalistic standards.
Similarly, it’s important for social media platforms like Facebook to specify what they consider “trusted sources” and what criteria they use to determine an outlet’s credibility. In a Jan. 19 post, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said to users:
Today I’m sharing our second major update this year: to make sure the news you see, while less overall, is high quality. I’ve asked our product teams to make sure we prioritize news that is trustworthy, informative, and local. And we’re starting next week with trusted sources. There’s too much sensationalism, misinformation and polarization in the world today … We decided that having the community determine which sources are broadly trusted would be most objective.That might be objective in the sense that it would be agreed upon by most people. But what happens when most of the readership has been groomed by decades, if not centuries, of distorted media? What if critical thinking isn’t at the top of society’s values right now? If readers don’t fully understand what bias or spin is, or they can’t differentiate between data and opinion, how could they tell whether something is misinformation?
Shaping our media and our news feeds starts with defining responsible journalism standards and re-educating the readership. That’s what The Knife seeks to do.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News