Social Media and Democracy in 2016

Ah, election season. The time every four years where we get to collectively wake up, freak out about the direction of the country for 6 months, passive-aggressively flood our feeds with political opinions, then act like nothing happened after it’s all over. This season has revealed some really painful problems with the internet in general and with social media in particular. In my view, there are two big ones that really ought to be fixed before 2020.

Twitter in 2016. On the left, #SpiritCooking, a hashtag about how John Podesta and Hillary Clinton are secretly Satan worshippers, trends with 625k tweets. On the bottom right, @brianstelter gives hope for the future with his emphasis on media literacy.

Twitter in 2016. On the left, #SpiritCooking, a hashtag about how John Podesta and Hillary Clinton are secretly Satan worshippers, trends with 625k tweets. It’s unclear how many tweets are produced by bots or by fake accounts. On the bottom right, @brianstelter gives hope for the future with his emphasis on media literacy.

First, Facebook and Twitter need a clear demarcation between real, verified people and anonymous accounts – trending content needs to be driven by real people, not sham organizations with ulterior motives. There are tons of people getting introduced to the internet via Facebook that don’t have a broader context of how much chicanery dominates the net. I can think of fewer things worse for humanity than unsuspecting grandparents being influenced by 4chan trolls. Initiatives like the DARPA Twitter bot challenge are good steps in the right direction.

Second, it’s important for Facebook to give users tools to moderate their intake of news – otherwise you risk people getting stuck in a confirmation bias loop for months on end. Having everyone immediately plugged into world events (real or made-up) on Facebook isn’t necessarily a good thing – it’s certainly not good for anxiety levels. During elections, confirmation bias combined with excessive news consumption can easily lead to viewing the world as a dystopian hellscape with apocalypse right around the corner – it did for me in 2012. This time around, I’m making sure I take breaths of fresh air here and there to keep perspective, but AFAICT, many people are falling into this trap.

Even though there are many other very serious issues at the intersection of the internet and democracy, I think there are strong reasons to be optimistic about 2020. A big one is that traditional journalists are pretty quick to adapt to changing technology. I take heart from programs like Reliable Sources on CNN that quickly identified problems like the fake news epidemic and offered helpful advice on how to ameliorate it. I think we’ll see significant learning and adaptation on the part of journalists, social media platforms, and users before the next major election.