Introspection seems to be the order of the day for Facebook. From the earlier stance of ignoring its role in US politics, to recognising that the social media platform could impact public opinion and political perceptions, Facebook seems to have engaged in some soul searching. I 2016, Mark Zuckerberg had suggested it was crazy to think that Facebook affected US politics.
Though it is not a surprise that this acknowledgement comes with certain tempering by the social media giant. Samidh Chakrabarti, a product manager responsible for politics and elections, wrote in a blog post that the company can’t guarantee that social media’s positive effect on democracy will outweigh the negative. “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,” he wrote a post for Facebook’s “Hard Questions” blog. “I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can’t.”
From the Arab Spring to other social movements, Facebook was thought to have a positive impact. Social media was seen as a facilitator for the good causes around the world. Even in India, the anti-corruption movement under Anna Hazare got immense support outside Jantar Mantar in Delhi through social media.
Image Credit: ThoughtCo.
But with the inability to stop the rapid spread of Fake news, Facebook has been compelled to recognise its negative role in Trump’s presidential election. Since November 2016, Facebook has moved to address these issues in concrete ways. This month, the company started to reengineer the News Feed, demoting content from news outlets in favor of activity from friends. It’s also going to start polling users on which sources they trust. “We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being,” said Zuckerberg.
The miasma of social media is polarisation and creation of echo chambers that spike half-baked political opinions as credible news. Not only in America, but around the world, Facebook may be having a compounding effect on national politics. For instance, in Cambodia, the authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen has been using Facebook to push pro-government feed and identifying and punishing his dissenters.
While there has been a resounding applause for social media’s support for freedom of expression, like all other things, a balanced approach is more apposite. Even in our country, there are reasonable restriction on individual expression to protect national interest and integrity. Similarly, encroaching truth with distortions on social media needs to be restricted rationally.
Facebook would do well to adapt better technologies to filter fake and harmful news, as it has now acknowledged the role it could play in forming national public opinion.