Casey Newton in The Verge:
So here’s what we now think we know about Facebook and democracy — or, at least, what Facebook no longer disputes:
- Facebook’s targeting tools are easily abused by bad actors, including foreign governments. Russia’s use of these tools in the 2016 US presidential election was of course instrumental in kicking off this entire discussion. (Some of it is still online!)
- Sophisticated misinformation campaigns will defeat Facebook’s best efforts to defeat them, at least some of the time. In one case, a single firm in Poland created 40,000 fake accounts to be deployed for propaganda purposes.
- Filter bubbles are real, and difficult to burst. Pew says that political polarization in the United States began more than 20 years ago. But Facebook’s design can accelerate that polarization.
- Governments are using Facebook to target and harass their own citizens, sometimes resulting in real-world violence. In Cambodia, authorities have arrested opposition party leaders based on false stories — and also arrested citizens who spoke out against Prime Minister Hun Sen.
- Social media can distort policymakers’ view of public opinion, in part because minority viewpoints are underrepresented. Women are underrepresented in political discussion on Facebook, for example.
Of course, Facebook highlights the company’s positive contributions to democracy. It does expose some people to journalism who might not otherwise see it, and encourages them to discuss it. It registers voters and created a tool to let Americans explore their local ballots.
But compared to the negative effects that Facebook now admits to, these contributions can look small. Meanwhile, in a near-weekly series of blog posts, Facebook builds the case against itself. Most people will continue using it as normal. But increasingly, they have reason to wonder: should we?