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Hard Questions: Social Media and Democracy

By Katie Harbath, Global Politics and Government Outreach Director

For the next topic of our Hard Questions series, we decided to confront an issue that has been top of mind for many of us here, including myself: What effect does social media have on democracy?

As someone who has worked for over 14 years in digital civic engagement — the last four as Facebook’s policy lead for global elections — this question bears down heavily. For many years, the answer seemed easier. From the Arab Spring to robust elections around the globe, social media seemed like a positive. 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.

Now, we’re as determined as ever to fight the negative influences and ensure that our platform is unquestionably a source for democratic good. There is much to build on in this regard, from the powerful role social media plays in giving people a voice in the democratic process to its ability to deliver information on an unprecedented scale. Our role is to ensure that the good outweighs the forces that can compromise healthy discourse.

That’s the subject that these essays address. We begin with a perspective from Samidh Chakrabarti, who leads Facebook’s civic engagement team. And for the first time since we launched Hard Questions, we’re publishing the views of three prominent outside contributors — not all of whom agree with Facebook’s perspective and offer some direct criticisms. We did this because serious discussion of these issues cannot occur without robust debate. And we asked them to take on a broader, and perhaps more blunt, question: Is social media good or bad for democracy? Among our writers is Harvard professor and author Cass Sunstein; Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia and social media scholar; and Ariadne Vromen, a professor of political participation at the University of Sydney.

We hope that this collection of pieces gives you some perspectives you may not have thought of before and sparks a discussion. We welcome your views and encourage you to share them in the comments or email us at hardquestions@fb.com.

 

Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook Product Manager, Civic Engagement

As the product manager in charge of civic engagement on Facebook, I live and breathe these issues. And while I’m an optimist at heart, I’m not blind to the damage that the internet can do to even a well-functioning democracy. That’s why I’m dedicated to understanding these risks and ensuring the good far overshadows the bad.

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Cass R. Sunstein, Professor at Harvard Law School

On balance, the question of whether social media platforms are good for democracy is easy. On balance, they are not merely good; they are terrific. For people to govern themselves, they need to have information. They also need to be able to convey it to others. Social media platforms make that tons easier. But celebrations can be awfully boring, so let’s hold the applause.

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Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Distinguished Visiting Fellow, the Hoover Institution

With the dramatic convergence of social media and election technology, debate about these issues is outpacing our knowledge of what is taking place. Hampered by a dearth of research on the political effects of “fake news,” bots, dark ads, as well as social media companies’ recalcitrance to disclose real data, political debates have been ad hoc, emotional and ill-informed.

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Ariadne Vromen, Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Sydney

Most other forms of political engagement tend to favour those with the most wealth or access. Not social media. It gives voice to anyone with a phone. In a time when political power is synonymous with economic power, the type of collective action social media makes possible is giving more people a say in the conduct of their governments and the society they live in.

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