Is Facebook Driving Our Country Apart?

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Is Facebook Driving Our Country Apart?
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Facebook has been on the defensive recently as comments made by two former insiders  reignited a firestorm about whether social media, Facebook in particular, has become an increasingly toxic force that tears apart the very fabric of society by turning us into mindless zombies susceptible to the slightest suggestion.

Facebook itself waded into the controversy, summarizing research suggesting that the platform can be both bad and good for our mental health. Stepping back from the hype and hyperbole, is it really the case that social media might truly be a force for evil in our modern world, ripping us apart in ways that undermine the very idea of self-government? Or is it merely a bystander, giving us a new digital window through which to observe inevitable natural societal change with newfound visibility?

We live in an era in which Russia is again the eponymous enemy, accused of secretly manipulating American society and undermining our democracy, complete with congressional investigations and wall-to-wall media coverage. This time, in place of Hollywood it is Facebook that has emerged as the villainous organization helping facilitate Russia’s putative takeover of the United States. The weapon of choice? Facilitating the spread of “fake news” and enforcing partisan “filter bubbles.”

Filter bubbles have emerged as a central argument as to how social media is feeding a partisan schism in American society. In the current era, the argument goes, we wrap ourselves in a comforting blanket of friends and associates who share information and viewpoints that align with our own. Those who stray are instantly excommunicated from our online clique with a click of the “unfriend” button. In the world of Facebook, conservatives see only pro-Trump news, liberals see only anti-Trump news and everything is copacetic.

The problem with this worldview is that it suggests social media is qualitatively different from traditional news sources, that without Facebook’s filtering we would be exposed to a vastly more diverse information diet.

In the Trump era, journalism has put forward itself as the solution to online filter bubbles -- a supposedly unbiased neutral purveyor of pure, simple “truth” that transcends politics. This construct whitewashes the long and storied history of American journalism that was, in the words of NYU journalism professor Mitchell Stephens, “born partisan and remained, for much of its history, loud, boisterous and combative.” For most of this nation’s existence, the purpose of journalism was to editorialize and entertain, and, yes, to cater to a particular segment of the ideological spectrum -- not to act as objective, disinterested documentarian.

Even today, just as social media platforms constrain what we see, so too does the “neutral” media play gatekeeper in deciding which stories are worthy of our attention. During the 2016 presidential election, if you were glued to CNN, the Russians were coming the Russians were coming, while Fox News viewers were regaled with how Hillary Clinton was illegally shipping the nation’s most vital secrets off to a rogue server in her basement. Geographically, no matter what station you tuned into, Africa was of little import. All this as journalists themselves increasingly choose to self-segregate in demographically distinct pockets of America.

Such informational filter bubbles mirror the physical bubbles we build around ourselves from the earliest of ages. Children quickly learn to self-organize into groups similar to themselves and distance themselves from those they mistrust, for any number of reasons. As we grow up, the places we live, the schools we send our children to, the places we shop, are all reflective of conscious and unconscious decisions we make: In life, as in the digital world, we surround ourselves with those like us.

Facebook was built from the ground up to reinforce these natural filter bubbles around which we construct our lives. When first joining Facebook, you are presented with a blank slate: a login and an empty page to populate with friends. By its very design, Facebook requires reciprocal friendships. If I claim Kim Kardashian as a friend, she has to confirm that we are indeed friends before I start seeing all her private posts in my newsfeed. It is, therefore, not a platform for expanding horizons, it does not exist to connect us with the other 7.6 billion strangers we’ve never met. Today’s Facebook offers no master browsable directory of its 2-plus billion users and doesn’t make it easy to just search for new people to meet and befriend.

Facebook is about connecting us with those already in our lives or friends of friends; it is about bringing us closer with those we already know rather than expanding our horizons to strangers across the globe.

Despite the vast world at our online fingertips, digital platforms can make serendipitous discovery more difficult instead of easier. Search boxes and hyperlinks direct us along predefined pathways rather than encourage us to chart a course for the unknown. In the print era, you waded through an entire newspaper just to find the single article you wanted, necessitating exposure to a broader array of stories, even if they did represent only a fraction of global events that day. Today, colleagues and algorithms do the wading for you, presenting you with just the pinpoint pieces of information of relevance and saving you from that final bit of discovery. Even academic libraries aren’t immune, with many moving much of their collections to high-density offsite storage facilities, forever ending the serendipitous scholarly stroll through the stacks.

This raises the question of why we are talking so much about Facebook’s filter bubble, but didn’t have such harsh words for AOL when it dominated the American online landscape.

Perhaps one clue can be seen in mainstream media coverage of informational bubbles. The phrases “filter bubble(s),” “online bubble(s)” and “information bubble(s)” first entered the English media landscape in a deluge the morning of November 9, 2016. In the political and media establishment’s desperate search that morning to understand how Donald Trump could possibly have won an election that Clinton supposedly had a 98 percent chance of winning, the idea of online filter bubbles walling us off from what would otherwise be a balanced array of views and information became the only possible answer. Suddenly all was explained: Liberals asserted that Trump voters must have been living in filter bubbles that surrounded them with fake news while conservatives argued that journalists and pundits lived in filter bubbles that walled them off from the genuine hardships faced by the rest of America.

That same month Mark Zuckerberg made “fake news” a household term by downplaying its role in the presidential election. (“I do think there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is they saw some fake news,” he said.) In an instant, the incredibly diverse world of state-sponsored propaganda, disinformation, willful manipulation, profit-motivated fabricated news, and honest mistake became lumped together.

Filter bubbles and “fake news” suddenly became a convenient, meme-worthy explanation for all sides to help them understand an election outcome that few expected. With the same stroke, these complex topics also became inextricably politicized concepts that have permanently tainted the ability for neutral, measured discussion of their role in the information sphere. In particular, in the absence of Facebook would we honestly be surrounded by a rich diversity of all viewpoints in our daily lives?

If Facebook’s filter bubble is merely a digital reincarnation of the physical bubbles we have long constructed our lives around, why has its advent seemingly accelerated the process of a society tearing itself apart. Could it be the new medium’s addictiveness? What is it about the Web, even 20 years ago, that made it impossible for us to turn away?

Facebook itself acknowledged last month the negative impact social media can have. Those who passively browse and consume without being heard themselves feel worse, while those who use social media to be heard feel better, at least according to the selection of studies handpicked by Facebook to argue its point. We all want to be listened to occasionally.

What is it about Facebook that makes us spend so much time there compared with business-oriented LinkedIn? Both platforms are about connecting people, both allow users to post and share content, but LinkedIn supports far greater serendipitous exploration of its community.

One answer is that LinkedIn is informative, while Facebook is entertaining. We go to LinkedIn to forge professional connections, to research industries and to read in-depth discussions that advance our knowledge and understanding of the world. We go to Facebook to catch up with friends, watch funny cat videos, see cherry-picked photos of all the amazing things our social group is doing, and read the latest gossip and conversation. (Twitter is about catching snarky commentary about mostly Western issues in 280-character snippets, talking directly to celebrities -- or their PR staff -- and shaming customer service gone wrong.)

We don’t turn to Facebook or Twitter for 10-page technical reviews of a statistical analysis of water usage in India or an academic meta-analysis of critiques of an obscure 16th century Italian poet. We venture to their walled gardens in search of escapism, mindless entertainment, to envy the glamorous veneers of our friends’ lives, in search of fame, in hope of reinforcement, asking or offering help or merely looking for conversation to pass the time.

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What is Facebook? This is perhaps the most central question to how we think about its role in society. If Facebook is a platform for bringing the world together, to have informed thoughtful conversations about our shared world, then endless hours of dopamine-fueled clickbait, snarky commentaries and infinite walls of intricately staged and curated photographs of friends is not its highest and best use.

On the other hand, if we treat Facebook as an entertainment platform, where we go to escape from the real world, then its addictiveness and divisiveness can be viewed in a very different light. Escapism is intrinsically addictive and we applaud it for being so. Would Facebook’s alleged mindset of “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” seem out of place in any Hollywood studio?

However, if Facebook is an entertainment platform, is it truly the best place for us as a society to be sharing, discussing and even publishing the news? On LinkedIn I can browse perspectives on emerging global issues written by the very luminaries involved, even if I’ve never met them. On Facebook, I can read what my neighbor thinks about the tweet they skimmed that summarized a blog post that discussed a link that a random college student shared without reading. Is it any wonder that we struggle with “fake news” and information warfare campaigns on social media?

In the two decades since the birth of the modern Web we have seen an incredible transformation in how we produce and consume information and most importantly in how we value it. The Web brought with it the notion that information could be free, that instead of buying a newspaper we could read all the news we can digest without ever paying a penny. Social media refined this by offering anyone a platform to pour forth their creative energies and let the companies collect the revenue from providing advertisers an audience.

On social media, we are all publishers and ad-powered ecosystems encouraged to register our opinion on everything that happens on Earth, no matter how far removed from any semblance of expertise or experience we might have, ensuring a flood of uninformed commentary that drives revenue, but reduces our collective understanding. We are taught to post first and ask questions later, chipping away at what remains of our self-control and normalizing impulsiveness over measured discourse. This, in turn, normalizes abuse and hateful speech when we are prodded to post an expletive-laden diatribe in response to every minor inconvenience that comes our way. Disagree with reporter’s take on a story? Don’t spend days researching and writing a point-by-point letter to the editor – fire off a hate-spewing tweet that vents the full fury of your anger at that moment. Road rage meets the information superhighway.

When we are encouraged to believe that every minor thought that pops into our mind is worthy of sharing with the entire planet, it is difficult for the resulting cacophony to facilitate informed debate and discourse. One of social media’s greatest promises was its empowerment -- that as each ordinary person found his or her voice, the megaphone of the elites would be drowned out just a little bit more. Yet, for every Black Lives Matter activist that speaks out, a KKK member gains an equal voice. For every community leader trying to bring people together, a troll works to split them apart.

Social media has empowered us in ways that are upending traditional gatekeepers and allowing uncomfortable voices across the entire spectrum of human condition to rally society to their cause. 

We often talk of social media, and the Web more broadly, as a profoundly transformational technology that has forever democratized our access to knowledge. Yet, this democratization is under assault on all sides, especially in journalism, where “free news” has resulted in an industry in economic freefall and measured objective voices being drowned out in the free-for-all global shouting match.

The advent half a millennium ago of Gutenberg’s printing press fired the first salvo in changing how information was accessed and produced by ordinary citizens. Suddenly anyone could spread controversial ideas across all of Europe to spark a reformation. Books could be mass produced and knowledge was for the first time affordable by the middle class throughout the continent. The ability to have one’s voice heard and to learn what was known about the world, which had since the dawn of time been the exclusive realm of the elites, was now broadly accessible. Social media has vastly accelerated—and democratized—this trend. 

Just as the printing press enabled the mass dissemination of knowledge and the telegraph and telephone accelerated that distribution to the speed of electricity, social media has completed that evolution toward instantaneous communication. A scholar of a previous age could live out his entire life at a single library studying just a few works to derive every bit of meaning from them. Depth and insight were more important than rapid-fire publication. It was the sciences that emphasized speed and being the first to announce or commercialize a new discovery. Social media has normalized the speed of the sciences over the thoughtfulness of the humanities.

Today being first is more important than being right. Breaking the blockbuster story that Russian hackers had burrowed deep into the U.S. electrical grid generated clicks and advertising revenue. The more mundane story (which was the truth) of an employee checking email on a non-grid-connected laptop and triggering a false alarm just wasn’t likely to generate huge volumes of shares – and it didn’t.

As the utility itself put it, “[O]ne of our employees went to check email at Yahoo.com. … [S]omeone in the federal government misinterpreted it as an intrusion into the grid by the Russians and leaked that information to the Washington Post, incorrectly. The Washington Post decided to run with the story before confirming with us. That’s what led to this cascading series of stories that spiraled out into the Twitter-verse with unrelenting speed. We’ve been trying to clean up the mess since then.”

Speed necessarily comes at the cost of contemplation and fact checking. It’s far easier to click the “share” button to distribute a headline to a million followers than it is to read the article in question from start to finish, track down all of its references and verify the entire story, statement by statement. Such conditions are ideal for false or misleading narratives to spread, though the long history of human existence has taught us that it is not necessarily the case that propaganda can magically enable “bad actors [to] manipulate large swathes of people to do anything you want.”

Implicit in real-time communication is the reality that, thanks to the rise of smartphones, we rarely “sign off” from the Web anymore. A generation ago you signed on in the morning to check your personal email and chat with friends on AIM, signed off and commuted to work, were typically limited to work email during the day or no online access at all, and then logged on again when you got home. Dial-up connectivity in most homes meant you had to frequently log off so someone could use the phone. The Internet of 20 years ago was like a virtual reality world that you plugged into for brief periods before returning to the physical realm. The Internet of today is more akin to “The Matrix” – a constructed reality that we never leave, with people on their phones even while driving, in the bathroom or out on a date.

This is at once humanizing in that we can observe elites as real people, bragging about a nice meal they just had, ranting about a story they didn’t like, complaining about poor customer service somewhere, name-calling or lavishing praise on something they agree with. Yet, it also removes those elites from their elevated pedestal above the fray and lets their every action and word be analyzed for good or bad. That snarky tweet about a Comcast outage in your neighborhood or someone wearing an unusual costume to a basketball game? That video of you at a private event trashing a political candidate that you are subsequently assigned to write about? The Web’s indefinite memory means a journalist’s simple click of signing an online petition regarding a personal issue can cast a shadow over his or her professional reporting later. This is journalism in the social age.

When it comes to turning us all into mindless zombies, Facebook acknowledges the addicting nature of its platform and that it can have both negative and positive impacts on society depending on whether we use it to talk to the world or whether we sit in silence and passively consume our friends’ amazing lives.

Perhaps “likes” and “shares” and “views” are the wrong metrics for us to be tracking.

It may be true that the latest “Star Wars” movie generated “368,000 new conversations” on social media in a week, but what does that metric truly mean? Conversations themselves are an imperfect proxy for the role social media plays in our lives. Studios care about selling tickets – a movie that generates zero online buzz but generates a billion dollars in profit would be just fine to them. From a societal standpoint, however, teaching our children that their online worth should be measured in how much attention they can get from others is a sad lesson for the next generation of world leaders to form their lives around. Life has always been a popularity contest, but there have always been those who eschewed being prom king or queen for more serious or altruistic pursuits. Counting clicks is far easier than assessing the global or local impact of a writing or action, but how might the very nature of social media change if we ranked posts on how much they change people’s views or influence real world action rather than how many mindless unread shares they received?

One reason we’re focusing on Facebook’s role in society is that the company has offered so little transparency into how its decisions are affecting the lives of 2 billion people. Never before has a single company headed by a single person had so much control over what nearly a third of the Earth’s population sees and does online and never before has there been so little accountability or visibility. Has Facebook transcended the role of a mere for-profit company and become something new – a virtual government deserving of democratic representation by its users, with every algorithmic change put to a vote?

Or perhaps all this talk of the evils of social media is wrong and Facebook is merely an innocent bystander offering a new kind of scientific instrument to observe a society in motion. Maybe a few algorithmic changes could solve the world’s problems at the expense of profitability. If Facebook itself acknowledges that passive browsing is detrimental to our emotional health, why doesn’t it implement changes to prevent such behavior, such as forcing us to contribute instead of merely lurking, and could a user sue the company for emotional distress if it does not take steps to correct an issue it has publicly acknowledged? If the internal controls at social media companies are so bad that a single employee can shut down the official account of the president of the United States, what hope do we have that a few rogue programmers won’t decide to throw the next election?

Is Facebook tearing us apart as a society? Are digital filter bubbles and addictive misinformation truly at the root of the partisan divides splitting our communities? Or are we simply at an inflection point in society, in which income inequality, globalization, disappearing jobs, housing, food, health care, education and myriad other social issues are dividing us into a nation of haves and have-nots? Lest we forget, we had a Civil War without benefit of Facebook or Twitter. Perhaps social media offers us a new lens to observe all of this. Perhaps the cacophony of voices that have always argued or agreed are now visible to our computer algorithms and statistical visualizations, which make it seem that today’s woes are the result of Silicon Valley rather than Washington. After all, social media is the perfect scapegoat for a world we don’t understand: It’s easier to blame an algorithm than affairs of state, simpler to fix computer code than civilization itself.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.



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