Is Facebook bad for democracy?

Some things are clearly bad for democracy: overbearing dictators, the rise of fascism, military rule. But social media? Really?

Blog posts examine controversial issues plaguing platform

It seems like a bad joke that the very same platforms where we share vacation photos and viral cooking videos, such as Facebook, could actually be damaging democracy right in front of our eyes, writes Ramona Pringle. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Some things are clearly bad for democracy: overbearing dictators, the rise of fascism, military rule. But social media? Really?

It seems like a bad joke that the very same platforms where we share vacation photos and viral cooking videos could actually be damaging democracy right in front of our eyes.

But that's the topic of Facebook's most recent round of "Hard Questions," a set of blog posts wherein company insiders and external contributors have looked at some of the most controversial issues plaguing the platform.

Other recent essays in the series have included one in which Facebook researchers questioned whether spending time on social media is bad for us, a post asking if we should be fearful of facial recognition technology and another looking at the online war on terrorism.

In theory, a platform like Facebook should be good for democracy. 

In his post on the platform, Harvard Law School Prof. Cass R. Sunstein says: "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."

'The platform has been taken advantage of'

Facebook's product manager of civic engagement, Samidh Chakrabarti, writes that social media has made it easier for people to discuss issues, organize around causes and hold leaders accountable.

"As recently as 2011, when social media played a critical role in the Arab Spring in places like Tunisia, it was heralded as a technology for liberation."

But he says the political climate was changed by the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which he says "brought to the fore the risks of foreign meddling, 'fake news' and political polarization."

"The effect of social media on politics," says Chakrabarti, "has never been so crucial to examine."

That's right, Facebook is publishing blog posts from its employees, bemoaning how the massive social network has posed new risks for the political system.

But as the social media giant begins to question its own influence, others question why they didn't do this self-reflection sooner.

After all, says Steve Anderson, a civic technology activist and founder of New/Mode, an online civic engagement platform that helps organizations and activists engage citizens in their causes, "Facebook's control over what we see, hear and express is unparalleled in human history, and without appropriate public accountability, that kind of power can't be good for democracy."

As Katy Anderson, a digital rights advocate with Open Media, puts it, "Facebook can be great as a platform for people to talk to each other about the issues that are important to them, but we know the platform has been taken advantage of, in terms of groups deliberately spreading misinformation … especially after more details into how Russian interests used the platform to influence the U.S. national election has come out."

'Facebook reigns'

But a decade after Facebook was launched and now that it has two billion users, it can be hard to for people to disentangle the platform from their lives as much as they might want to.

"It's familiar and it's easy," says Open Media's Anderson. "It's become the central organizing platform — and one that is hard to step away from, particularly when it could mean leaving all of your connections behind."

It's not that easy for people to step away, says Tessa Sproule, the CEO of Vubble, a media tech company that creates solutions for content credibility assessment and distribution.

Vubble CEO Tessa Sproule says there are legitimate social reasons why people continue to log in daily to Facebook. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

She says there are legitimate social reasons why people continue to log in each day, despite growing discomfort over its potential negative influence, most notably that "Facebook is a frictionless connector to family and friends present and past in an age when messaging and 'liking' have replaced letter-writing and landline phone calls."

Not to mention, she adds, that "it's a wildly effective tool for delivering the dopamine hits to our self-worth that we may feel we are missing in the mad rush of the day."

"Until those things are matched by something else," says Sproule, "Facebook reigns."

'Adopt a set of public interest values'

For now that means we seem stuck, uncomfortable with what the social network has morphed into as its size and influence have grown but unwilling or unable to detach ourselves from its allure, despite admission on the part of Facebook itself that it is doing us — and our society — harm.

So if we can't walk away, even when we know we should, and even when Facebook has admitted its flaws in our increasingly toxic relationship with the platform, what can we do?

Sure, we can't stop the march of time, but we also don't need to accept the dissolution of the values our democratic society has been built on.

"At a minimum Facebook should crowdsource and adopt a set of public interest values that transparently lay out the criteria they use to shape user experience and our public sphere," says New/Mode's Anderson.

We all still have a say in whether or not we use Facebook, writes Pringle. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

"Flowing out of those values," he says, "Facebook should send a message to everyone who has been manipulated by false information to let them know what has occured."

The platform, he says, should commit to always notify users when it has been revealed that manipulation has occurred and should allow regulators to audit their algorithms.

Additionally, says Anderson, "they should embrace what I call data empowerment by enabling users to fully own and liberate their data from Facebook."

Despite our "addiction," Sproule says, if we want to see any real change or reckoning, "that's on us."

After all, Facebook may be damaging democracy, but democracy means we all have a voice — and a choice — and we still all have a say in whether or not we use the platform.


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.