According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of Americans use social media—and its popularity has not gone unnoticed by the government. Following the testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, a more intense dialogue about regulating the Facebook company and other social media platforms has been born. Haugen emphasized the damaging effects Facebook can have on its users and criticized Facebook’s failures to appropriately address them. Much of this conversation has referred to the very important issues of mental health, body image, and predatory behavior that exist on social media. However, social media’s effects even extend into politics.
Facebook and social media platforms have become hosts to extensive amounts of misinformation. There is little regulation on posting and users do not usually parse between reliable and unreliable sources. Hence, the spread of misinformation. Moreover, social media companies want to get more users and increase the amount of time people spend scrolling. To do that, every person sees a different feed and variety of posts and content. This content is prescribed specifically for every user based on data from other content they interact with. Thus, users are only exposed to content that they like.
This may help if you use social media for online shopping, but not for politics. From the time of Hamilton and Jefferson, healthy competition has been foundational to American democracy. It is necessary that voters educate themselves on a variety of perspectives so that they become intelligent decision-makers and not partisan zombies. Social media creates silos that put users into an echo chamber of political content that agrees with them. Social media news stories are usually twisted to report what certain groups may want to hear, rather than accurately recounting the news.
This can be seen by the events of January 6th, 2021. During and after the time of the 2020 election, news stories about the untruthfulness of the election blew up. Most of this news was about dead people’s names on ballots, trash cans full of votes for Trump, and other lies that disparaged the honesty of the election. These stories were disguised as truth and many Trump supporters took them to be accurate. The reports supported what his fans wanted to hear. The social media algorithm knew this and automatically put it onto their feed because it is consistent with other Trump-supporting content they interact with. The misinformation on social media played a role in making Trump supporters believe the election was stolen, encouraging them to storm the capitol.
On a side note, misinformation exists for Democrats as well. However, the insurrection reveals the direct consequences of social media and misinformation.
Social media can be incredibly damaging to American democracy. Does this mean that social media should be completely removed from the political equation? While it may seem easy to jump to this conclusion, social media politics can be beneficial.
Historically, minorities of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender have been ignored by American politics. Not only has the government failed to properly address the inequities that lace American institutions, most of the people who can change that don’t belong to these minority groups. Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles reveal in #HashtagActivism that this means members of minority groups have to find effective ways to communicate their needs which exist outside of the status quo. Social media is a successful platform for this. Most grassroots social movements of the past decade have been born on social media.
In their study on the effects of social media on Black Lives Matter, Marcia Mundt, Karen Ross, and Charla M. Burnett write that one BLM group claimed the platform allowed them to tell their stories “as real, as raw, and as relevant as [they] may be, without the worry of a filter being put on.” The same lack of filtering that promotes misinformation can prevent the diminishing of the harsh truths of discrimination. Social media can also be a space for activists to share resources which help allies educate themselves on a topic or send funds to a certain organization or movement. The large scope of social media also helps increase participation in these movements.
Stricter regulations on social media may help stifle misinformation, but they could also hinder the progress of social movements. Regulations for social media platforms need to be placed but must also be very thorough in addressing this paradox. I propose that social media platforms don’t apply to their content-prescribing algorithm to political content. Therefore, users won’t only be seeing news that they want to hear. While it would be helpful to put an end to falsified news stories and misinformation, it is unlikely that politicians will give this up. It may even be considered a violation of free speech. This will also assure that filters put on misinformation aren’t inappropriately applied to activist movements.
Addressing both the pros and cons of social media’s involvement in the political sphere is difficult. However, as lawmakers consider imposing stricter rules on the Facebook company, they must include social media politics in their deliberations.
Photo Courtesy of politics.co.uk