Why Social Media May Not be So Good for Democracy
Gordon Hull, 7 Nov 17

Some of the Facebook and Instagram ads used in 2016 election released by members of the U.S. House Intelligence committee. AP Photo/Jon Elswick

Recent revelations about how Russian agents inserted ads on Facebook, in an attempt to influence the 2016 election, present a troubling question: Is Facebook bad for democracy?

As a scholar of the social and political implications of technology, I believe that the problem is not about Facebook alone, but much larger: Social media is actively undermining some of the social conditions that have historically made democratic nation states possible.

I understand that’s a huge claim, and I don’t expect anyone to believe it right away. But, considering that nearly half of all eligible voters received Russian-sponsored fake news on Facebook, it’s an argument that needs to be on the table.

How we create a shared reality

Let’s start with two concepts: an “imagined community” and a “filter bubble.”

The late political scientist Benedict Anderson famously argued that the modern nation-state is best understood as an “imagined community” partly enabled by the rise of mass media such as newspapers.

What Anderson meant is that the sense of cohesion that citizens of modern nations felt with one another – the degree to which they could be considered part of a national community – was one that was both artificial and facilitated by mass media.

Mass media is one way to create a shared community. Dave Crosby, CC BY-SA

Of course there are many things that enable nation-states like the U.S. to hold together. We all learn (more or less) the same national history in school, for example. Still, the average lobster fisherman in Maine, for example, doesn’t actually have that much in common with the average schoolteacher in South Dakota. But, the mass media contribute toward helping them view themselves as part of something larger: that is, the “nation.”

Democratic polities depend on this shared sense of commonality. It enables what we call “national” policies – an idea that citizens see their interests aligned on some issues.

Legal scholar Cass Sunstein explains this idea by taking us back to the time when there were only three broadcast news outlets and they all said more or less the same thing. As Sunstein says, we have historically depended on these “general interest intermediaries” to frame and articulate our sense of shared reality.

Filter bubbles

The term “filter bubble” emerged in a 2010 book by activist Eli Pariser to characterize an internet phenomenon.

Legal scholar Lawrence Lessig and Sunstein too had identified this phenomenon of group isolation on the internet in the late 1990s. Inside a filter bubble, individuals basically receive only the kinds of information that they have either preselected, or, more ominously, that third parties have decided they want to hear.

The targeted advertising behind Facebook’s newsfeed helps to create such filter bubbles. Advertising on Facebook works by determining its user’s interests, based on data it collects from their browsing, likes and so on. This is a very sophisticated operation.

Facebook does not disclose its own algorithms. However, research led by psychologist and data scientist at Stanford University Michael Kosinski demonstrated that automated analysis of people’s Facebook likes was able to identify their demographic information and basic political beliefs. Such targeting can also apparently be extremely precise.

There is evidence, for example, that anti-Clinton ads from Russia were able to micro-target specific voters in Michigan.

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