Spare a thought for Facebook and Twitter, two of the less-recognised casualties of the 2016 election in the United States.
For nearly two years now, they have come under fire for their role in shaping some of the most notable, and worrisome, features of the election: spreading false stories, mainstreaming the alt-right, amplifying Russian propaganda. Now comes the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the consultancy firm hired by the Trump campaign scooped up the personal information of 50 million Facebook users often without their permission – in order to microtarget voters.
News of Facebook’s (potentially unwitting) assistance to the Trump campaign has sparked the #DeleteFacebook campaign, part of a slew of responses negative enough to draw a mea culpa from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. But anyone expecting genuine change – or worse, effective solutions – from social media companies has a long wait ahead of them.
In the aftermath of 2016, calls for social media reform abounded. Many believed that there had to be a way to limit the spread of fake news stories and to prevent white nationalists and other illiberal groups from manipulating popular platforms like Facebook and Twitter. But calls resulted in technical tweaks: labels added to indicate certain stories were unproven, the suspension of the accounts of a few high-profile alt-right leaders.
Social media companies didn’t go further – they won’t go further – because they do not see themselves as part of the problem. They cling instead to techno-utopianism, the belief that new technologies can connect, then perfect the world. It is an ethos that defines Silicon Valley, where profit and progress are often seen as one and the same.
A faith in innovation is hardly unique to our current age. But in the case of tech, a particular set of historical confluences have given the industry a special belief in its own goodness. Silicon Valley came of age in the sunny climes of California in the 1990s, just as the Cold War – and perhaps history itself – was coming to an end.
Peace came with prosperity, as the sharp recession of the early 1990s gave way to a booming economy, one for which Silicon Valley took most of the credit. The attacks of September 11 may have ended the peace, but they also added an urgency and moral mission to the project of connect-and-perfect: the world needed fixing, badly. And Silicon Valley was ready to ride to the rescue.
As media scholar Siva Vaidyanathan shows in his forthcoming book Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, due out this spring, social media companies such as Facebook truly believe that they are forces of good in the world – so much so that they have been blinded to the negative effects of their systems. Their naïve utopianism made it impossible for the company’s engineers to foresee (and thus forestall) the ways bullies, racists, propagandists and trolls would hijack their sites for their own ends. And when those things happened, they saw the problem not as one inherent in social media, but one that could be fixed with a few new lines of code.
And that’s the underlying problem with Facebook, Twitter, Google, and anyone who looks to those companies for answers. They believe that, ultimately, social problems have technological solutions. It’s a deliciously tempting idea, one which many people well outside of Silicon Valley subscribe to: that we’re one tweak, one update, one new release away from fixing our society and politics.
The response to the fake-news crisis suggests as much. Flagging items as unproven, a move Facebook made when it was under fire for its role in spreading false stories, fundamentally misunderstands why news consumers believe and share misinformation. There are a series of ideological and tribal motivations for passing along fake stories, as well as an underlying belief system that treats outside arbiters with suspicion. It’s the same set of motivations that undermined fact-checking efforts over the past decades: motivated to believe false stories about the opposition, conservatives regularly attacked fact-checkers for left-wing bias.
The cause of the current crisis in democracy, in America and elsewhere, is not fundamentally a technological one. It’s a social and political one. The fraying of social bonds, of shared understandings of true and false, of political norms, and of commitments to democracy may have been abetted by technological change, but they were not caused by it. The solutions, if they exist, will be social and political: civic education, community building, and yes, regulation. Social media may assist with these efforts, but won’t drive them. That will only result from a broader social change.
If that sounds daunting, that’s because it is. One reason people find technological solutions so tempting is because they are so comparatively easy: releasing a new app or updated code is far easier than renewing a commitment to democracy or to shared realities. Silicon Valley errs in conflating the two, believing as its products and profits advance, so too does society. But we need to come to a clearer understanding of reality: our social media are a reflection of our society. Our time is better spent improving the latter.