Facebook admits that, yea, maybe it's not great for democracy

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Image: Christopher mineses/mashable

Facebook is many things, but good for democracy might not be one of them.

On Monday, Facebook executives and outside experts publicly released their thoughts on the effect social media — specifically Zuckerberg’s controversial platform — has on democracy.

The conclusion? Um, well, yeah — it might not be so great. And Facebook did not realize that in a timely manner.

“In 2016, we at Facebook were far too slow to recognize how bad actors were abusing our platform. We’re working diligently to neutralize these risks now,” wrote Samidh Chakrabarti, who leads Facebook’s civic engagement team.

Outside experts agreed, noting that Facebook did do some things well, but that the U.S. election proved that its platform can be abused.

“From the Arab Spring to robust elections around the globe, social media seemed like a positive,” wrote Katie Harbath, a global politics and government outreach director at Facebook. “The last US presidential campaign changed that, with foreign interference that Facebook should have been quicker to identify to the rise of ‘fake news’ and echo chambers.”

Facebook did change with 2016 politics

After taking into account the role social media plays in politics and elections, Facebook and outside experts arrived at some harsh truths. Those thoughts were posted in a series of blog posts written for the platform’s “Hard Questions” series.

If it feels like Facebook wasn’t always a steaming pile of fake news and Russian collusion accusations, you’re right. The first to lend his voice to the positive aspects of Facebook’s role in democracy was Harvard professor and author Cass Sunstein, who began by noting social media is key to sharing information.

“On balance, the question of whether social media platforms are good for democracy is easy … they are not merely good; they are terrific,” he wrote. “For people to govern themselves, they need to have information. They also need to be able to convey it to others. Social media platforms make that tons easier.”

The good, however, isn’t without the bad, Sunstein said. He went on to condemn Facebook’s mission to give users “the most personalized experience.”

“While personalization initially sounds like a positive effort, Sunstein noted that feeding people a single perspective has the potential to be extremely dangerous, even leading to extremist viewpoints and group polarization,” he wrote.

“Citizens should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance,” Sunstein wrote. “Serendipity is a good thing. Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself.”

Change is coming, again…

To address the issue of the 80,000 Russia-created posts that reached around 126 million Facebook users in the United States, Chakrabarti said Facebook is “working to make politics on Facebook more transparent” by archiving electoral ads, requiring organizations running election-related ads to confirm their identities in the future, and more.

“This kind of activity goes against everything we stand for. It’s abhorrent to us that a nation-state used our platform to wage a cyberwar intended to divide society,” he said.

Chakrabarti went on to address on-platform problems with fake news, echo chambers, political harassment, and unequal participation that must also be addressed in the near future and the current plans to do so.

“If there’s one fundamental truth about social media’s impact on democracy it’s that it amplifies human intent — both good and bad. At its best, it allows us to express ourselves and take action. At its worst, it allows people to spread misinformation and corrode democracy,” Chakrabarti said.

“I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can’t. That’s why we have a moral duty to understand how these technologies are being used and what can be done to make communities like Facebook as representative, civil and trustworthy as possible.”

So what’s next?

Harbath emphasized that Facebook has made several missteps over the past year especially, but they’re “determined as ever to fight the negative influences” on the platform and ensure it’s “a source for democratic good.” 

“Our role is to ensure that the good outweighs the forces that can compromise healthy discourse,” she said.

Facebook plans to feature additional “Hard Questions” blog posts on social media and democracy from Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia and social media scholar, and Ariadne Vromen, a professor of political participation at the University of Sydney, in the following days.

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