Facebook Admits The Obvious - Social Media Can Be Bad For Democracy

In a complete flip-flop from saying they had “no impact” on the 2016 election, Facebook has finally admitted that social media is bad for democracy - surprising absolutely nobody.

They talk about the network’s impact on politics in a string of blogs as part of their “hard questions” series, in which outside experts and Facebook executives assessed the company’s impact on elections - looking at the entire political spectre of partisan content and fake news.

“From the Arab Spring to robust elections around the globe, social media seemed like a positive,” Katie Harbath, Facebook’s global politics and government outreach director writes. “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.”

It’s a weird tightrope that social media walks when it comes to politics - balancing on a wire of helping people stay informed, but losing balance over the spread of misinformation and smear campaigns. “Even with all these countermeasures, the battle will never end,” wrote Facebook’s product manager for civic engagement, Samidh Chakrabarti.

These blogs come after some big moves Facebook has made to address the problems, such as demoting business page/news outlet content from the News Feed in favour of friends & family. On the issue, Zuckerberg said his company feels “a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being.”

However, while the intent is good, the question of whether this will tackle the ever expanding echo-chambers of social media is still very much up in the air. Fake profiles are still a thing and fake news is still being unknowingly spread by my friends through simple attractions of clickbait titles and eye-catching imagery.

I don’t know the full answer to this - far smarter people in higher places are paid much more to do that. But to one social media marketer (hi), one of the small steps to a solution is clear - block political parties/members from the paid promotion options of social channels. The levels of targeting are an insane overreach for political pliers and the lack of regulation for what you can post is borderline crazy (promote as many fake news stories as you wish). 

Politicians and the stories they share/discuss are already shared far and wide by the media landscape, so they really don’t need that extra paid promotion.

But whatever Facebook chooses to do, admitting the problem publicly is a good start. “If there’s one fundamental truth about social media’s impact on democracy it’s that it amplifies human intent — both good and bad [...] I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can’t,” Chakrabarti summed up nicely.