Five campus experts from various disciplines gathered to discuss the impact of social media and disinformation on the future of democracy during a virtual Berkeley Conversations event Tuesday.
The event was moderated by Henry Brady, former dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy. The panel discussed the origins and impact of online disinformation, or what the panelists characterized as one of the most “critical questions” facing U.S. democracy, as well as proposed potential solutions for it.
“We seem to have two alternate realities because we are all consuming content in an echo chamber and filter bubble driven by social media,” said Hany Farid, associate dean and head of UC Berkeley’s School of Information, during the event. “I don’t know how we can have a stable society and democracy if we can’t agree on basic facts.”
The panelists discussed how partisan disagreement makes it difficult to address widespread problems such as climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and questions of election legitimacy. Susan Hyde, campus political science department chair, noted that while propaganda has been used in the past to manipulate voters, social media’s ability to manipulate them on a new scale and individualized nature presents novel threats to democracy.
Geeta Anand, dean of the campus Graduate School of Journalism, also addressed how social media and disinformation has instilled a public distrust in news companies, with many people viewing journalists as outsiders who don’t understand their problems. She emphasized the importance of funding local journalism to increase public trust in the news.
Anand added that she believes news organizations would benefit from a tax on social media corporations, as many have lost ad revenue due to users seeking political news on social media more often.
“If no one is reading those stories because they are buried on social media platforms where everyone is going to get their news in an increasingly polarized world, then journalism itself is irrelevant,” Anand said during the event. “A coalition is emerging on this campus and elsewhere to stand up and invest in journalism as a vital tool of democracy.”
Farid alleged that without government regulation, social media corporations will continue to allow disinformation on their sites because it tends to increase user engagement. He added that social media should be held responsible for the operation of their algorithms, which should create a “fair marketplace” of ideas.
The panel also discussed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which prevents internet companies from being liable for information posted on their platforms, according to Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law.
Chemerinsky said that while Section 230 limits governmental regulation of social media, he fears allowing government entities to limit free speech more than he fears the negative consequences that may arise from speech online.
However, Farid said the current system, with a lack of governmental regulation, doesn’t seem to be working. Hyde added that this might ultimately lead to a suppression of free speech.
“It’ll be a real shame if democracy dies on the altar of free speech,” Hyde said during the event. “You don’t get to have free speech under authoritarian regimes.”