The Web was supposed to bring together people from all around the world to exchange ideas and information.
And yet, 25 years after the emergence of the first public website, we’ve just concluded a contentious US election campaign that starkly demonstrated how the Internet — or more specifically, the social media companies that shape how increasing numbers of people use the Internet — are keeping voices and facts out of the public conversation.
The 2008 election campaign was considered revolutionary for the way it used social networks to galvanize a movement around Barack Obama. Back then, only 25 percent of American adults used social media and most were under 30, according to the Pew Research Institute. Eight years later, closer to 65 percent are on social media, and the age gap has narrowed.
As social media audiences grew, news outlets followed, trying to bolster their flagging readership by posting links to stories. That’s how Facebook evolved from a place to exchange messages and superpokes with friends to a place where 44 percent of American adults get their news.
But traditional media outlets, which strive for balance and accuracy, came to share space with hyper-partisan pages that mimicked their presentation but fell far short of journalistic standards — including some stories that were completely false. A recent Buzzfeed News investigation showed that the least accurate stories from these pages got the most shares and interactions, “far more than the three large mainstream political news pages analyzed for comparison.”
Hoaxes and rumours have always spread on the Internet. But when they happen on this scale, at a time when distrust of traditional journalism has been stoked by a presidential candidate who told America it’s all “rigged,” it’s more likely to contribute to distorted views of reality.
Along with spreading false information, social media has a growing problem with excluding voices that would contribute to more complete information about public opinion.
In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton mentioned her supporters using “secret, private Facebook sites,” a reference to the Pantsuit Nation group that exploded to 2.5 million mostly female members, posting hundreds of times a minute, in the final days of the campaign. (Membership has since passed 3.6 million.) “I want everybody coming out from behind that and make sure your voices are heard going forward,” Clinton said.
But there’s a reason women turn to closed social media communities such as Pantsuit Nation (I’m a member of three) to share their views. Women who post on social media about feminism or politics are routinely subjected to condescension, harassment or abuse. Users can report abusive content on Twitter, but when legions of trolls pile on — as supporters of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were known to do to this year — it’s a losing battle.
That can have a chilling effect, leading women to self-censor their opinions, or to stay out of the public conversation altogether.
Imagine how different the election could have been if the women of Pantsuit Nation felt free to passionately and publicly promote their candidate on social media like Obama’s supporters did in 2008. What would it have been like if they felt as welcome to share their voices as Trump’s so-called “alt-right”, a term sometimes used by white supremacists to describe their movement, felt welcome to share racist and misogynist memes? The rise of the alt-right, became a major narrative of the 2016 campaign; the rise of Pantsuit Nation never did.
It took until very recently for Twitter to announce new measures designed to block and report abuse. The company has been reluctant to address its trolling problem, suggesting that to do so would clash with its commitment to freedom of expression. Last week, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg dismissed suggestions that his company influenced the election, saying in a statement: “Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 percent of what people see is authentic.”
Presumably “all the content” includes baby photos and other personal posts, leaving us unclear on what proportion of “news” content is fake. He also failed to address how prominently fake news appears in users’ news feeds.
These excuses don’t cut it. When millions of people rely on your company to shape how they view the world, you have a responsibility to make sure they are getting the best, most complete information. When your company becomes a default medium for participation in public life, you have a responsibility to make sure everyone feels safe and welcome to share their voices there.
If the Internet is going to live up to its promise as a place that is open to all, and a place that spreads the information people need to make informed decisions about their world, social media companies must step up to help it get there.
This article first appeared in iPolitics