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5 ways Facebook hurts democracy — according to Facebook

I started writing The Interface in October. Fallout from the 2016 election had resulted in a daily de
January 22 · Issue #66 · View online
The Interface
I started writing The Interface in October. Fallout from the 2016 election had resulted in a daily deluge of journalism about the unforeseen consequences that Facebook and other social networks were having. By organizing those stories into one place, I hoped to chronicle a cultural reckoning and help give it some shape. I entered into it without a strong sense of how social networks should respond to the unfolding crises around the world. I simply wanted to understand: how is social media reshaping our world?
Today we learned that Facebook itself has been grappling with this question. In a remarkable set of blog posts from a company that is publishing ever more of them, the company owned up to some of the ways that Facebook can negatively effect democracy. “We’re as determined as ever to fight the negative influences and ensure that our platform is unquestionably a source for democratic good,” wrote Katie Harbath, Facebook’s global politics and government outreach director. “Our role is to ensure that the good outweighs the forces that can compromise healthy discourse.”
Samidh Chakrabarti, a product manager who works on civic engagement, outlined some of those forces in a separate post. 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 U.S. 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.
Whether social media is a net benefit to democracy is, at best, an open question. “I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can’t,” Chakrabarti writes. “That’s why we have a moral duty to understand how these technologies are being used and what can be done to make communities like Facebook as representative, civil, and trustworthy as possible.”
There is little precedent for a technology company to call itself out publicly in this way, on its own corporate blog. Today’s series of essays on democracy — which will continue over the coming days and weeks, the company said — comes on the heels of two other significant announcements, on subsequent Fridays, about changes to the News Feed that will reduce the amount of news in it while promoting more trustworthy journalism. And less than two months after a post about how browsing Facebook could be bad for your self-esteem.
What to make of this? Certainly there is ammunition here for anyone considering the idea of spending less time on Facebook and its apps. It could also be a gift to governments, democratic and otherwise, who would use the information here to subject Facebook to new regulations. That Facebook would invite — and publish — this level of criticism speaks to how high the stakes are for its business. Of the big four tech companies, Facebook is arguably the easiest to quit using. The company is more sensitive to pressure in part because it has to be.
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?

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Rupert Murdoch calls for Facebook and Google to subsidize the news business
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Here’s How Scammers Are Using Fake News To Screw With Bitcoin Investors
Executive Behind Facebook’s China Charm Campaign Is Out
SoFi Offers CEO Spot to Twitter Executive Anthony Noto
YouTubers Beg Fans: Leave Videos On in the Background
Snap Lays Off Two Dozen Employees
Snap Threatens Jail Time for Leakers on Cheddar
Facebook trying out a new creative format: the list!
Matt Navarra
NEW: Facebook has a new ‘list’ post feature! (Coming soon?)

h/t @wongmjane
WhatsApp officially launches its app for businesses in select markets
Facebook won’t retreat from Stories as it adds desktop posting
I took two days off last week and missed what felt like 47 news cycles related to Facebook’s announcement that it would begin taking into account whether news outlets were considered trustworthy while ranking them in the News Feed. I spent last night at the airport reading all the takes; here are some favorites.
Facebook Adds Reputation Scores, Facebook’s Solution, The Unintended Consequences
Facebook's Bad Idea: Crowsourced Ratings Work For Toasters, But Not News
5 Questions About Facebook's Plan to Rate Media by 'Trustworthiness'
I also liked this:
Robert Mackey
Sadly Facebook defines the problem as finding news sources that are “broadly trusted” rather than worthy of trust. One is an opinion that can be surveyed, the other is a fact that requires judgement to discern; surveys can be processed by computers, judgements require humans.
Facebook crushed everyone’s pivot to video, except its own.
What if a Healthier Facebook Is Just … Instagram?
Should My Phone Have a Surgeon General’s Warning?
What Publishers Missed About Facebook’s News Feed
Just 65 issues in, The Interface crossed 1,000 subscribers over the weekend. Thank you to everyone who has signed up so far, and especially to everyone who has written in with a note of thanks or encouragement. It feels like our cultural reckoning with social media is just beginning, and I’m excited to keep exploring it together. Now on to 10,000. 
And finally ...
Facebook announces that it has invented a new unit of time
Talk to me
Questions? Comments? Ways to make Facebook better for democracy? 
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