Facebook and Democracy: Social Media's Coarsening Impact on the Public Square

Could Twitter diminish your tolerance for opposing ideas (as well as your productivity)? Is Facebook bad for democracy?

Could Twitter diminish your tolerance for opposing ideas (as well as your productivity)? Is Facebook bad for democracy?

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and other social media platforms are set up to show people content that they are already likely to agree with, which is fine when you are checking out puppy dogs and meal ideas. But when the content turns toward politics or life-changing policies, social media algorithms on Facebook and elsewhere leave people seeing only content they “like,” trapping them in a self-reinforcing bubble with little exposure to alternative ideas.

The result? People with different opinions are drifting further and further apart, removed from intellectual challenges and less likely to engage with political opponents. This drop in the need for intellectual rigor is making it more difficult to find solutions to problems that impact everyone.

Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein’s latest book, “#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media,” outlines the role of social networks in representative government, and warns that the division of viewpoints into hardened us vs. them groupings is real, growing, and becoming more difficult to overcome with time.

Speaking to political columnist Michael Barone recently, Sunstein said that the blinders narrowing our minds are harming the American creed.

Echo chambers and information cocoons are a real problem for democracy. It’s very important for people to step outside a kind of hall of mirrors which they can construct with the aid of Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and encounter both topics that are unfamiliar and maybe not especially interesting to them, and certainly points of view that aren’t congenial and that may be disruptive to what they already think that is central to, let’s say, the American project.”

The average Facebook user gets about 20 percent of his or her news from Facebook, with younger people getting a higher percentage. Likewise, the data show that people on Twitter tend to follow people that agree with their points of view.

Sunstein says this phenomenon is no surprise. Visionaries like Bill Gates saw 20 years ago a new world in which people could get exactly what they want, effectively creating what Sunstein calls “The Daily Me,” a completely personalized online encounter in which everything on one’s computer or tablet reflects views that are preferential to the owner. That’s exactly where society headed.

Is there a danger in not turning the trend around, or not having people demonstrate a curiosity for what others outside their viewpoints think? And is the decision to look at like-minded ideas on the Internet any different than self-selecting pre-sorts of media that came before it, like the cable news channels or news magazines?

Yes and no, Sunstein says. Self-selection has been going on for ages, but its scale has never been so large and so reinforced. As a result, despite its massive reach, social media have basically made it harder to solve problems. When it comes to policies like immigration, infrastructure, education, or economic mobility, the positions have become so rigid, that “doing something about some of these issues would seem preposterous.”

Sunstein notes that human curiosity doesn’t keep everyone down. The counter-effect of social media is that people on each side of the debate pay close attention to what the opposition is saying so that they can monitor and challenge it.

Though Sunstein describes his own book as downbeat and not cheerful, he suggested a few prescriptions that could turn the tide for American society. For one, providers of information, whether they be news outlets or Facebook itself, can get out of the business of reinforcing the barriers.

Two ideas that would be on the list of proposals are, why not give Facebook users an Opposing Viewpoints button where they can just click and then their newsfeed is gonna show them stuff that they don’t agree with. Or why not give Facebook users a Serendipity button where they can just click and if they click, then they’re gonna get stuff that is just coming to them through an algorithm which provides people with a range of stuff. So if you’re someone who is just focused on one set of issues, you’re gonna get the “Wall Street Journal” and “New York Times” also.
And Facebook, to its credit, doesn’t wanna pick winners and losers, so they shouldn’t promote one particular newspaper, but they could have a random draw of things, maybe it could be geographical.

One other approach to get us back into a constructuve debate is to challenge Americans try to take a high road when they disagree in public online forum, and not merely insult their opponents, but nudge people to explain the positive aspects of the positions they support. Good luck with that, but courtesy used to be an American value.

Watch Barone’s interview of Sunstein below.

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