Social media and democracy: The hard questions

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Ryan Kendrick/Staff

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Following the Jan. 6 insurrection — which was, by most accounts, the direct result of former president Donald Trump’s farewell speech and Twitter activity — Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, Reddit and other social media companies banned the former president from their platforms.

In response to the bans, Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, tweeted, “It’s coherent–and in my view absolutely appropriate–to believe both that (i) the social media companies were right to suspend Trump’s accounts last week; and (ii) the companies’ immense power over public discourse is a problem for democracy.” Jaffer added in another tweet, “The First Amendment question is easy. All the other questions are hard.”

By the First Amendment, these organizations didn’t do anything constitutionally wrong by banning the former president. Since social media companies are private organizations, they can do whatever they’d like with their platforms. They have every right to ban Trump or anyone else for violating their terms of service. That is not censorship, nor is it an infringement on anyone’s First Amendment right to the freedom of speech.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 is often used by social media companies to deflect responsibility for what goes on their platforms. According to the act, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Developed in response to lawsuits resulting from inappropriate chatrooms on AOL in the early ’90s, Section 230 argues that service providers should not be treated as publishers but rather as blank slates or empty canvases online.

But social media platforms are not empty canvases, and the online environment has come a long way since AOL. “They are publishers,” said Walt Mossberg, acclaimed journalist, former Wall Street Journal columnist and former executive editor of the Verge. “What they happen to publish is what’s referred to as user-generated content.”

Mossberg added that Section 230 “outlived its usefulness a decade ago,” and “it was never, ever intended as a Get Out of Jail Free card for a [platform] with 3 billion people on it, like Facebook.”

What makes them liable as publishers — and what invalidates the Section 230 defense they’ve relied on for two decades — is the fact that social media companies use bots and algorithms to curate our feeds. “They don’t just sit there like a blank slate. They actually curate and decide what you’re going to see in your feed, what I’m going to see in my feed,” Mossberg said.

Unlike public discourse in a real-life setting, the social media environment is not a self-regulating one. Instead, and to the monetary profit of the techno-oligarchs, social media companies are using algorithms that are effectively dismantling professional media, decimating the divisions between fact and fiction and causing political mayhem.

Unlike public discourse in a real-life setting, the social media environment is not a self-regulating one.

Algorithms decide what we engage with on social media by learning our preferences and repeating them to us over and over again. The more we engage with content, the better they know us, and the more power they have over what we think, say and do.

Tristan Harris, star of the 2020 Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” has noted that “fake news spreads six time faster than real news.” In order for a democracy to function, citizens must be well-informed and able to critically think about policy and politicians before voting. If algorithms continue influencing the way we think and embedding our feeds with falsities, how is democracy to survive?

Mediating politics and society through bias-confirming bubbles makes it increasingly harder to differentiate real news from fake news, let alone have civilized discussions with people who hold views different from our own. These bubbles are a key driver of political polarization, “the vast and growing gap between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats” according to Pew Research Center, which “is a defining feature of American politics today.”

Social media, especially Twitter, is a preferred method of communication by politicians. Geeta Anand, dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, said the implications for trust in traditional news media are disastrous when politicians choose to communicate to citizens through social media. Distrust in the news poses yet another serious threat to democracy.

When politicians chose to tweet rather than hold a press conference or use other means of communicating to constituents, “you don’t have the press available to ask questions and to correct those facts,” Anand said.

Mossberg pointed out that politicians have the opportunity to speak to citizens directly, which enables us to make up our own minds about whatever it is they have to say. Journalists then present to us fact-checked versions of that communication. But on social media, Anand noted, “You just have politicians spreading their information without checks and balances, and without the prism of journalism which is committed to caring out and revealing the truth.”

To put this in perspective, Trump went 300 days without holding a press briefing, yet, according to CNN, tweeted 18 times per day on average throughout his presidency. Nearly a month after Election Day, Twitter flagged 200 of Trump’s posts for containing false, misleading or disputed information about the validity of the election.

The practice of social media companies fact-checking users and flagging posts for misinformation or disinformation might reasonably be seen as a precursor to Trump’s ban, and it brings up a slew of problems that deserve their own analysis.

The dominant narrative in the history of communication technology — starting all the way back with Gutenberg and the printing press, exalted by the rise of the “information wants to be free” internet, and then driven hard and fast by social media companies — has been a triumphalist one. Technology has always been heralded almost exclusively as an agent of progress, but nothing is ever just an agent of progress.

On the one hand, social media has given a voice to those who are normally excluded from political discussions. Through these platforms, we can connect with like-minded individuals, organize into groups, start movements to achieve a common goal or garner support for politicians. With social media, we achieve collective action. We find agency. We rise up and give momentum to movements, be it #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Climate Strikes — and the insurrection.

On the other hand, social media, as it exists now, fosters censorship. As Joshua Tucker writes in “From Liberation to Turmoil: Social Media and Democracy,” the “platforms of information freedom can be exploited to silence others.” Anti-democratic forces within democracies can learn how to use authoritarian methods to exploit open information platforms.

Social media is not inherently democratic or anti-democratic but rather a place where competing political interests battle for your undivided attention. Without the proper regulations, democracy can quickly become derailed. So what’s to be done?

One potential solution is the News Literacy Project, of which Mossberg sits on the board.

The News Literacy Project is a 13-year-old, nonpartisan education nonprofit that “provides programs for educators and the public to learn how to be smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in democracy,” according to the organization’s website.

The dominant narrative in the history of communication technology — starting all the way back with Gutenburg and the printing press, exalted by the rise of the “information wants to be free” internet, and then driven hard and fast by social media companies — has been a triumphalist one.

Learning how to determine the credibility of news or other content is crucial to know “what to trust, share and act on,” the News Literacy Project’s website states.

The project’s curriculum is taught in all 50 states, and is being increasingly picked up by entire school districts. It is made to be delivered in the classrooms of middle schools and high schools, and students also have the option to sign up on their own to access the free lessons. So far, the program has reached more than 1.5 million students.

“We teach about how to tell facts from fiction,” Mossberg said. “How to classify the information, the news they see. Is it straight news? Is it an opinion column? Is it propaganda? Is it just a lie? We teach what journalists do, and what quality journalism is,” Mossberg added. At its core, the curriculum teaches critical thinking that empowers students to be active in the democratic process as informed citizens.

Now, the program is being adapted for anyone to use around the world. “We’ve made a major decision that we can no longer ignore the general public, the danger to our democracy and to all democracies,” Mossberg said. The News Literacy Project has an app, Informable; a podcast, “Is that a Fact”; a weekly newsletter; and a version of the curriculum available for anyone to read outside of the classroom.

News literacy and education are essential, but, according to Anand, are not the only solutions. It will take decades before enough people are well-versed enough in news literacy to be immune from democracy decimating disinformation.

Another solution Mossberg proposes is a legislative one. In an article for the Verge, Mossberg proposed a plan to save the internet. “I suggest that Congress pass a broad law setting out the national interest in protecting the internet and the general principles by which that protection would be defined,” he wrote.

The bill needs to include protections for privacy, security, net neutrality and competition. In this bill, Congress should create a special, nonpartisan commission, or a specialized court that will “adjudicate disputes about internet issues as they arise, by interpreting the law,” Mossberg added in the article. From this, a body of precedent would build up on a case-by-case basis.

“There can’t be any sacred cows,” Anand said. “We have to rethink everything because this is a whole new industry.”

Contact Rochelle Gluzman at [email protected].