Andrea Römmele and researcher Rafael Goldzweig explore politics and the internet.
The use of the internet for political purposes has been on the agenda of campaign coordinators since its use by Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1996. Back then, websites and e-mails were the main ways a candidate could get in touch with his or her supporters over the internet – a one-way street that didn’t allow for much feedback from the electorate. Things are different now. From Democratic candidate Howard Dean’s innovative use of Meetup.com in his 2004 presidential primary bid, to former US President Barack Obama’s online coalition building in 2008 and the advent of big data in 2012, the use of the internet for political purposes has advanced in leaps and bounds over the last two decades.
In 2016, with attention on the Brexit referendum and the American, French, and German elections, social media was in the headlines for its possible role in allowing external interference in the results. The discussion went beyond the use of big data to target voters and included the role of tech companies in supporting misinformation that fosters political polarisation. Recently, Facebook, Google, and Twitter were called to Washington, D.C., for congressional hearings on their roles in Russia’s attempt to influence the American presidential election by spreading misinformation online.
According to a poll by the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of adults in the US got news on social media in 2016 – a 13 percent increase over the previous presidential election cycle in 2012. This trend shows that social media is influencing the way people consume information, which shapes how they view the world around them. How are social media and the internet affecting democracy, and what can be done to avoid negative outcomes?
Algorithms, the political bubble and state regulation
Last year German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on the major internet platforms to disclose their algorithms. Algorithms are the mechanisms that “choose” which content a given viewer will see. By analysing user reactions, they learn which content is appealing to a specific person, and which is not. For instance, whenever a user likes or retweets a post from President Trump, algorithms close the door to content on topics that may not be appealing to a Trump supporter, such as gun control, affirmative action, or gender issues. Merkel called this “a development that we need to pay careful attention to”, arguing that a healthy democracy depends on people being confronted with opposing ideas. In the age of the social network, algorithms are slowly putting us inside bubbles according to what we like or dislike, preventing us from being exposed to the arguments of the other side.
The concern with social media is not new in Germany. Earlier this year the German parliament approved a new law aimed at regulating social media platforms to ensure they remove hate speech after receiving complaints. The NetzDG law (Network Enforcement Act) stipulates fines of up to €50 million if a social media platform fails to comply. At the regional level, the European Commission has been advocating stricter laws on the right to privacy and control of data for European citizens online. At the last G7 meeting in Italy, UK Prime Minister Theresa May argued that social media platforms should be required to take proactive measures to remove extremist content and report it to authorities.
Facing the threat of state regulation in many countries, some companies decided to address the challenges surrounding the use of social media on their own. Before the social networks law was enforced in Germany, Facebook worked with Correctiv, a non-profit investigative newsroom, to fight misinformation and fake news ahead of the national elections in September 2017. That aligns with the action plan presented by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to tackle fake news after Trump’s victory, which involves implementing new technology to detect false information and cooperating with users and journalists to spot, report, and fact-check suspicious posts.
Should we regulate social media?
Critics of Germany’s NetzDG law argue that it will encourage tech platforms to censor controversial content, raising debates about the line between freedom of opinion and hate speech. They also complain that technology regulations often fall short as companies are generally two steps ahead of regulators.
In this context, is regulation a solution? Yes and no. Regulation should guarantee users’ privacy and enforce accuracy in online content. It also should demand transparency from social media companies with regard to why and how users are targeted with specific ads. However, over-regulation can slow innovations that help consumers.
The impact of social media on democracy is a by-product of its design: a platform that aims to connect people, providing interesting content and enticing them to access it again – while flooding their timelines with advertisements. Since the algorithm is calibrated to show content that will fit a person’s interests, it will also prioritise content that confirms prior political beliefs. Experts in digital democracy explain that as algorithms close our eyes to content that doesn’t appeal to us, they encourage us to take more radical political positions by creating a comfort zone where these are more easily adopted.
A multi-stakeholder approach is essential to ensuring that the social-media sphere becomes a healthier and more democratic space. One possible solution would be to treat political content differently, fostering interactions between people who have different positions. Rather than wait for regulators, tech companies should be actively involved in proposing creative solutions to the shortcomings of their own platforms. Fact-checking initiatives may help users identify what is true or false online, but it is essential to ensure that fake information does not get space in public debate or regulated forums. With the participation of governments, social-media networks, and internet users, we can close the door to online sources of misinformation that encourage polarisation.