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Facebook's corporate blog looks dangerous, but plays it safe

Hard Questions is a series of blog posts that Facebook began publishing to talk about the thornier qu
January 25 · Issue #69 · View online
The Interface
Hard Questions is a series of blog posts that Facebook began publishing to talk about the thornier questions about the company, and the drama of reading it lies in seeing how far the company will go in criticizing itself. For the most part it comes across as a good-faith effort to grapple with conversations around terrorism, psychology, and other tricky topics. And yet by its very nature, the blog seemed designed to gently rebut criticism rather than absorb it. 
Over the past month, there was one notable exception: it came when the company acknowledged that some use of social media can make you feel worse about yourself. Another seemed to arrive Monday, when the company asked the question that inspired me to begin this newsletter last October: is social media good or bad for democracy?
The company acknowledged it ultimately couldn’t answer the question. But for the most part, Facebook played it safe.
To grapple with its democracy problem, the company published three essays from outside researchers, politicians, and academics about the subject. (A fourth came from a product manager.) The final two posts in the series arrived today: Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia; and Ariadne Vromen, professor of political sociology at the University of Sydney.
Vromen takes a cheery view. “A technology that has the capacity to expand and diversify political equality around the world is a net good,” she writes. “Most other forms of political engagement tend to favor those with the most wealth or access. Not social media. It gives voice to anyone with a phone. In a time when political power is synonymous with economic power, the type of collective action social media makes possible is giving more people a say in the conduct of their governments and the society they live in.”
This is a commonly held view — and a naive one. On Jan. 10th we brought you research from Jen Schradie about the digital activism gap. She writes:
Most of the studies on digital activism were not designed to understand social class divisions. This literature tends to focus on extraordinary moments of online political organizing (e.g., Vasi and Suh 2016), relying heavily on events such as anti-globalization protests, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street. The emphasis on these exceptional cases initially made sense as social media activism began to emerge, as they had highly visible levels of online activity. But this focus leaves scholars with more information on emergent movements of the digitally plugged-in and less data on existing organizations from different social classes. Examining mostly digitally successful movements has created a selection bias (McAdam and Boudet 2012), inadvertently obscuring differences with internet access and use.
Schradie reviewed 90,000 posts from 34 different activist groups and found that networks like Facebook and Twitter generally reproduce offline inequality:
The fieldwork and the index show a large social class gap: groups with middle/upper-class members have much higher levels of digital engagement than those with working-class members. The mechanisms of this class-based digital activism gap are the substantial costs involved for any individual or group. From the digital inequality literature, we would expect that costs would be prohibitively high for activists from lower socioeconomic groups. The digital activism literature has yet to disentangle costs based on class, but the general assumption is that costs would be lowered to some extent across the board. Instead, costs are prevalent for all groups, yet excessively high for those with working-class members.
Ilves’ post is more interesting, even if — as with all of the Hard Questions blog posts — it doesn’t seem to have a thesis that goes beyond “it’s complicated.” He surveys some of the main challenges to democracy presented by social media, taking a moment to beat up on Twitter:
One of those vectors is “bots.” The Twittersphere especially has been deluged by bots — or robot accounts tweeting and retweeting stories — that generally are fake and often in the service of governments or extremist political groups tying to sway public opinion. NATO’s Center of Excellence for Strategic Communication, for example, recently reported that an astounding 84% of Russian-language Twitter messages about NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe were generated by bots. The assumption, of course, is that the more something is seen, the more likely it will be believed.
He goes on:
Twitter itself has not been particularly forthcoming in addressing these concerns, sometimes claiming its small size prevents it from doing so. In some instances it has argued that it should not have to comply with law enforcement requests for data because it had no office in Germany. How long Twitter can maintain this stance is an open question.
By contrast, Ilves’ criticisms of Facebook are tame. He discusses the rapid spread of fake news on the platform, and the problem of “dark posts” — the ads that are delivered directly to Facebook users and aren’t viewable by anyone else. In the former case, he says “it is extremely difficult to judge the actual impact of this massive disinformation effort.” In the latter, he notes that Facebook has already moved to eliminate dark posts from the platform. 
On one hand, there will likely never be an easy answer to questions about how social media influences democracy. On the other, the four essays that Facebook published this week did little to advance the discussion. 
I suppose there is value in communicating broadly about which questions the company is grappling with. And yet the main thing I take away from this week’s essays is how far Facebook still seems from the answers.

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