By Barry Eitel
SAN FRANCISCO (AA) - Social media can be problematic for democracy, according to a series of blog posts Monday written by Facebook executives.
The three posts were authored by members of Facebook’s leadership and outside scholars. The self-criticism was tempered compared to the most vocal decriers of Facebook, but the articles reveal the company has become much more self-reflective from when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that it was “crazy” to believe Facebook could affect elections following the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential poll.
“From the Arab Spring to robust elections around the globe, social media seemed like a positive,” the company’s global politics and government outreach director Katie Harbarth wrote.
“The last U.S. presidential campaign changed that, with foreign interference that Facebook should have been quicker to identify to the rise of ‘fake news’ and echo chambers.”
Harbarth’s analysis was echoed by product manager for civic engagement Samidh Chakrabarti, who said the company would never completely end its political problems.
“With each passing year, this challenge becomes more urgent,” Chakrabarti wrote.
“Facebook was originally designed to connect friends and family — and it has excelled at that. But as unprecedented numbers of people channel their political energy through this medium, it’s being used in unforeseen ways with societal repercussions that were never anticipated. In 2016, we at Facebook were far too slow to recognize how bad actors were abusing our platform. We’re working diligently to neutralize these risks now.”
One of the biggest issues Facebook seems to have identified is about how its users fall into ideological “echo chambers” where most of their online contacts share the same point of view. Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School, wrote a blog post citing studies that show that these online echo chambers can lead to users having more extreme views over time.
“This problem is linked to the phenomenon of group polarization — which takes hold when like-minded people talk to one another and end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk,” Sunstein wrote. “In fact, that’s a common outcome. At best, it’s a problem. At worst, it’s dangerous.”