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Is Social Media a Threat to Democracy?

By Tom Glaisyer / 2017 October 4th

Today The Omidyar Group released a paper co-authored by me and two colleagues at Omidyar Network on the role of social media platforms on democracy and the public square. This paper – called “Is Social Media a Threat to Democracy?” – comes at a moment when there is new scrutiny on the role Facebook, Google, and Twitter played in spreading misinformation and divisive propaganda during the 2016 election. Those debates loom large, however, our analysis goes well beyond any one election to try and understand how social platforms are disrupting core elements of a democratic society.

In June 2017 Facebook raised the question “Is social media good for democracy?” Like them, we have been wrestling with these questions for some time, and while we do not take for granted how these networks provide value to civic life, we are also deeply troubled by the dangers they pose. Their algorithms and their vast storehouses of data gives them fundamentally new capacities abilities to shape discourse, media, and civic and democratic life in American.

As my co-authors – Stacy Donohue and Anamitra Deb – and I reviewed the research of leading voices on this set of issues, we identified six key ways social media is threatening democracy:

  • Exacerbating the polarization of civil society via echo chambers and filter bubbles
  • Rapidly spreading mis- and dis-information and amplifying the populist and illiberal wave across the globe
  • Creating competing realities driven by their algorithms’ intertwining of popularity and legitimacy
  • Being vulnerable to political capture and voter manipulation through enabling malevolent actors to spread dis-information and covertly influence public opinion
  • Capturing unprecedented amounts of data that can be used to manipulate user behavior
  • Facilitating hate speech, public humiliation, and the targeted marginalization of disadvantaged or minority voices

There are no easy answers to the challenges represented above, and any group of potential solutions must account for the diverse interests of multiple stakeholders if we are going to have the public square we deserve. As our founder, ebay creator Pierre Omidyar, wrote today in The Washington Post, “Just as new regulations and policies had to be established for the evolving online commerce sector, social media companies must now help navigate the serious threats posed by their platforms and help lead the development and enforcement of clear industry safeguards. Change won’t happen overnight, and these issues will require ongoing examination, collaboration and vigilance to effectively turn the tide.”

For our part, at Democracy Fund, the potential effects of social media on democracy are closely tied to many lines of our work. This includes longstanding investments on issues ranging from combating hyperpartisanship with constructive dialogue to developing digital election administration tools, and from understanding the impact of fact checking to supporting communities often targeted online. A few examples of this work include:

  • Politifact, one of the nation’s leading fact checking organizations, has partnered with Facebook to combat the spread of misinformation on the platform.
  • The Center for Media Engagement, formerly the Engaging News Project, works with newsrooms, social platforms and the public to develop and test ways to make trusted online information more engaging and impactful.
  • The Coral Project builds open-source tools focused on helping newsrooms build safe, secure and vibrant online communities.

In addition, we supported the Knight Prototype Fund on misinformation earlier this year, which focused on many of these issues. The full list of 20 projects can be found here, but the four projects we funded are:

  • Viz Lab — Developing a dashboard to track how misinformation spreads through images and memes to aid journalists and researchers in understanding the origins of the image, its promoters, and where it might have been altered and then redistributed across social media.
  • Hoaxy Bot-o-Meter is a tool created by computer scientists at the Center for Complex Networks to uncover attempts to use Internet bots to boost the spread of misinformation and shape public opinion. The tool aims to reveal how this information is generated and broadcasted, how it becomes viral, its overall reach, and how it competes with accurate information for placement on user feeds.
  • The Documenters Project by City Bureau creates a network of citizen “documenters” who receive training in the use of journalistic ethics and tools, attend public civic events, and produce trustworthy reports on social media platforms.
  • The American Library Association is collaborating with the Center for News Literacy to develop an adult media literacy program in five public libraries, focused on how to be a savvy digital citizen in a platform world.

We are going to continue to ask hard questions and support people and organizations who are working to create a robust public square that serves our democracy. We look forward to continuing this work alongside these and other partners. Please email the authors at inquiries@omidyargroup.com if you’d like to discuss how we might work together.

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