Open your Facebook newsfeed. What do you see? Maybe photos from your friend’s toddler’s second birthday party. Maybe an op-ed from the New York Times. Maybe a local news article. Maybe a compilation of cute kitten videos. Maybe a piece of satire from The Onion. Chances are good that over the course of your time on Facebook, you’ve connected meaningfully with friends and family—perhaps you got to wish that high school buddy living across the country a heartfelt happy birthday, or received sweet comments on your latest post from your grandmother. But this feed has done a lot more than give you your daily dose of celebrity gossip or kept you up to speed on the latest activist hashtag. In fact, the existence of Facebook poses one of the biggest questions of our immediate history: what roles do this platform and its related technologies play in the current state of our democracy and the Fourth Estate that accompanies it?
On November 13, journalist Franklin Foer, staff writer at The Atlantic, sat with Stanford law professor and legal scholar Nate Persily for a conversation moderated by Lucy Bernholz, Senior Research Scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab as part of the McCoy Center’s Technology and Human Values series.
Depending on who was listening, Foer took a pragmatic—or cynical—tack. He argued that the prevalence of these companies, which own so much data about our day-to-day lives, means that the companies’ values become our own. He was skeptical about the sincerity of these values, leery that the Mark Zuckerbergs and Larry Pages of the world might make the right moral choices when it comes to preserving the state of democracy when money is also on the line.
Facebook has changed the game for people around the world, but it has also changed the game for the press, Foer told the audience. Revenue streams are now driven by what can garner clicks and boost Facebook traffic, and the media has had to respond, covering stories that might otherwise not be worth covering a staggering 3.2 million times, as he said the killing of Cecil the Lion got back in 2015.
This problem for media is compounded for average citizens in the fact that social media platforms make it easier than ever to stay within our own hiveminds and confirm our own biases on a regular basis. “The problem is, if you’re just getting news you want to see, you’re becoming intellectually incapacitated,” Foer said. But he believes we might be on the verge of turning a corner. To Foer, the key is for humans to reclaim their agency; we are, after all, the users of these platforms. Without us, they wouldn’t exist or turn a profit. “If we don’t make intentional decisions about where we’re headed, we’ll regret it later,” he argued. Despite the great power these companies hold over our economy and social structures, Foer does have a little bit of hope. “Human beings are powerful, too.”
Nate Persily’s comments were a little more forgiving of the tech giants by which Stanford is surrounded. His focus was less on the companies themselves and more on their effect on the public squares that are crucial to a healthy democracy. Such a topic has been on the minds of millions, especially since last year’s election. Persily conceded that the Internet, with all its trappings, is still a liberation technology, bringing to the fore voices previously silenced; where we should be concerned, however (or, at least, vigilant) is in regard to how this accessibility to speech might impact the country’s political framework.
A few different questions guided Persily’s comments. How does a marketplace of ideas function for our democracy in the age of the Internet? “More speech does not equal more truth,” Persily said, a lesson driven deeply home in the era of fake news. As for that question of truth, he wonders whether a citizenry has to agree on what facts are in order to trust its institutions or uphold them? Finally, to what extent does our democracy require a focus on humans and citizens (rather than bots and algorithms)?
According to Persily, the fact that you can’t counteract false speech fast enough is a problem, as is the privileging of anonymity in ways the Founding Fathers couldn’t have imagined. He overlapped with Foer in scrutinizing echo chambers and the dangers of monopolies, and pointed out that freedom of speech on the internet poses unique challenges to democracies precisely because it’s free. Foreign agents can influence what consumers see and read and, therefore, think, from halfway around the globe. It can feel impossible to stop.
His hope is in the solutions—also spurred by user agency—that might be implemented in the coming years. Safeguards that might require a human to factcheck something that goes viral, for example, and requirements to visibly display sponsors on ads are a start; more needs to be done in the realm of deterrence, and conversations about deleting or otherwise preventing certain content from populating these platforms will be difficult. But the basic yet essential questions as to how unmediated peer-to-peer sharing, that Silicon Valley has fostered, will influence our democracy must be addressed.
The moderated discussion and resulting audience Q & A touched on the addictive nature of the internet (Foer shared that he’d been trying to rearrange his life so as to use less social media; “It’s hard,” he admitted), and the value of humanists in tech (again, from Foer, “Everything is the Internet and if we don’t have people who understand human beings and ethics and politics, we won’t create a world that respects us”), but one of the most fascinating aspects of the conversation came from Persily. Remember your feed from the first paragraph? The hypothetical one with the kitties and the op-ed and the Kardashians? On a platform like Facebook, it’s all packaged the same way. We scroll and we scroll and we scroll, and there is nothing that visually differentiates a tabloid from an op-ed from an in-depth, reported piece of journalism from a Buzzfeed quiz. Without cues to indicate content, it is up to us to be discerning users. And therein lies the biggest challenge in the modern age: are we patient enough, curious enough, hard-working enough to be those discerning users?
SARA BUTTON is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Menlo Park. She has an MFA in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.