Last week, lawyers from Google, Facebook and Twitter met with a Senate judiciary subcommittee to testify about social media’s role in politics, specifically the Russian online influence campaign that happened during the 2016 US election.
Political scientists used to say the best thing about liberal democracy is the freedom to live life the way you want. But that seems to be somewhat problematic when good information becomes hard to find. Nowadays everyone seems to be wondering if people with different beliefs can live together peacefully.
It’s become clear that the rise of fake news is capable of ripping a country apart from the inside out. We now see more coercion, bigotry and lies, even though some experts used to say social media could catapult us into a political enlightenment. Social media was supposed to improve communication and make it easier for us to filter our corruption and misinformation. However, we could be moving in the wrong direction.
146 million Americans saw misinformation on Facebook created by the Russians. YouTube had 1,108 Russian-linked videos with about 43 hours of content, and Twitter had more than 36,000 Russian bots who tweeted 1.4 million times during the election. Some of the ads were about Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, illegal immigration and Islam.
One fake Facebook group called “Black Matters” received about a quarter million “likes” and some of the other groups were related to the 2nd Amendment, President Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Texas Border.
During the testimony, Senator Al Franken said Facebook should’ve noticed the Russian online influence campaign when ads were bought with rubles, a Russian currency, and Senator John Kennedy talked about Facebook having so much data on users but hardly enough information about the “5 million advertisers that change every year, every month, probably every second.”
Kennedy went on to grill Google about their business model, especially after Google chose not identify as a newspaper, which is interesting because technology platforms are not liable to the legal responsibilities of journalists.
Later on, Senator Lindsey Graham called this “the national security challenge of the 21st Century.” But this problem certainly reaches beyond America (just look at what’s happening in South Africa and Spain, for instance).
Inaccurate information on social media is altering our judgement and sensibilities, amplifying division, and fueling culture wars around identify, race and class, similar to the polarizing content we’ve seen on cable news and talk radio for years.
Even though many of us don’t completely understand the trajectory of social media, it will continue to be highly influential and more money will be generated from news stories, advertisements and personal data in the future.
Right now our reactions are being measured and algorithms are getting better at stealing our attention, especially the people in rich countries who touch their phones about two thousand times a day.
But more screen time doesn’t mean more exposure to the truth, especially when so many people would rather not watch or read something that makes them think their opinions and ideas could be outdated, the same people who only want information that reinforces their biases. After noticing that, Russia created an influence campaign that would divide the country around sensitive social issues in order to hurt our democracy.
Although sometimes it feels like we’ve reached a new level of petty, this isn’t a new phenomenon. The history of America has some dark chapters that include people picking and choosing which set of facts to believe, ignoring empirical evidence and forgetting about what’s good for society as a whole.
Overall, it’s a good thing that most Americans don’t believe everything on social media; however, 4 out of 10 people do. But in order to rescue our democracy, we all have to adapt and begin to follow more trusted newspapers, pressure social media companies to be more accountable, pass legislation that creates more transparency around political advertisement funding, and demand that the government to recognize and break up monopolies in the technology industry.