Social media: Democracy’s poisoned chalice

Written by Henry Goodwin on . Posted in Current features, Features

It is December 4th 2016, and Edgar Maddison Welch, a 28 year-old father to two daughters, has driven 560 kilometres from Salisbury, North Carolina to Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in northwest Washington. His mission? To investigate ‘Pizzagate’, a viral online conspiracy theory which claimed that Comet Ping Pong was keeping young children as sex slaves as part of a child-abuse ring controlled by Hillary Clinton, the recently-vanquished Democrat candidate for president. Welch had, in his own words, sought to ‘shine some light’ on ‘Pizzagate’. His heart was ‘breaking over the thought of innocent people suffering,’ he later told reporters, which is why he took a military-style assault rifle into Comet Ping Pong and opened fire.

Over a year later, despite the fact that nobody was hurt, the incident is still considered by many as the ultimate example of the very real danger that fake news can bring. ‘Pizzagate’ had initially spread like wildfire in the weeks before the 2016 US Election, with articles arguing its legitimacy widespread on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. It was not alone. Analysis by Buzzfeed News after the election showed that ‘engagement’ with fake news stories (defined as the total numbers of shares, reactions and comments) on Facebook during the campaign was around 1.4 million higher than with legitimate mainstream news items. 960,000 people read a fabricated story claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for president.

Since, many have been quick to point a finger at Facebook and Twitter especially, for supposedly abetting the distortion of democracy. Testifying before the US Senate at the start of November, Facebook executives admitted that between January 2015 and August 2017, 146 million users may have seen Russian-produced misinformation designed to sway the results of the 2016 election. YouTube acknowledged that 1,108 Russian-linked videos had been put up on its platform, whereas Twitter revealed that 36,746 accounts had been created by Russian actors with the intention of spreading fake news. Social media, many say, should have more vigilantly warded off Moscow’s now well-established attempts to undermine the election.

It was not always like this. Rewind five years, and social media were considered a groundbreaking boon for democracy. In November 2013, a Ukrainian journalist called on his Facebook followers to descend on Kiev’s Maidan square. Within three months Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s then-president, was removed. Three years earlier, Facebook had been similarly integral in sparking and organising the mass protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, which eventually toppled Hosni Mubarak and provoked what would become the Arab Spring. Social media were, in short, a supremely influential actor for progress and plurality in modern-day democracies.

It all begs the question: what went wrong?

Pier Luigi Parcu, Director of the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, rejects the notion that social media ‘were good before and are bad now’. ‘Social media is an instrument,’ he told EUI Times, ‘and instruments can be used in positive and negative ways.’ That we may now be seeing the negatives ‘more clearly’ does not mean that blame should be placed at the door of the instrument itself, he says. Rather, ‘it is the use of the instrument’ that is the problem.

‘We are undoubtedly seeing increased manipulation and polarisation on social media, but I think this is the manifestation of deeper societal questions,’ Professor Parcu explained, pointing to widening inequality, the rise of populism and the challenges posed by mass migration as creating ‘a very polarised society’.

Rather than causing our divisions, social media reflect and amplify those that already exist. In this sense, platforms like Facebook and Twitter sit alongside talk radio and cable news – particularly in the US – in their ability to whip up anger and embolden existing faultlines. Yet where they differ from Fox News, for example, is their relative newness. Societies are still coming to terms with how social media operate, how influential they can be, and the extent to which they can be manipulated.

The freshness of the social media problem is reflected in the paucity of available solutions and, from some corners, an argument that it isn’t a problem in the first place. ‘I’m not sure social media is the issue,’ Professor Parcu contends. ‘I think the issue is that we don’t understand how very controversial content enters and is amplified by these platforms.’

Social media magnify rather than cause our societal divisions, Parcu argues.

Parcu is wary of, as some have advocated, enforcing the regulation of social media. ‘I am afraid we are going to kill the messenger without fully understanding the problem,’ he explained. While he acknowledges that there is ‘a cultural battle’ over the ‘irresponsibility’ with which they are used, he urges caution. In tackling the spread of fake news in particular, ‘you risk censorship, limiting the right to information and freedom of expression. You are close to endangering fundamental rights.’

So what, if anything, can be done to make social media great again?

Traditional media outlets are subject to libel and ownership laws, which rein them in if they are deemed to overstep the mark. There are some who would like to see social media companies be held similarly accountable for the content that appears on their platforms, though others say this would concentrate the power to determine what information is in society’s interests in the hands of a privileged few. Other suggestions include treating them like monopolies which need breaking up, though multiplying the number of platforms could make the industry harder still to keep tabs on.

For his part, Professor Parcu believes there should be one set of rules during electoral campaigns, and another the rest of the time. ‘When there are political campaigns, democracies have rules on political participation, on the media, and also on political advertising. Clearly Facebook is now an important advertising instrument. So, when there is a political campaign, it should be governed by the same rules of transparency and equal and equitable presence as other media.’

Users should be able to see not only if an advert is a politically paid-for message, but also who paid for it, Parcu suggests. Looking ahead, this sort of incremental adjustment is probably more likely to be enacted than sweeping legislative action. Facebook could, for example, make it clearer if a post comes from a trusted source, or more loudly stress the perils of misinformation. Twitter could take a harsher line on bots, which are frequently used to increase the circulation of politically-motivated messaging.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that, for all its ills, social media remains a means of communication and connection that is unrivalled across human history. If we can overcome its vulnerabilities, there is no reason that the optimism and enchantment which characterised its early years can not return.

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