Silicon Valley Can't Destroy Democracy Without Our Help
Silicon Valley, once a force for good, is now a threat to democracy. At least that’s the impression you’d get from the flood of news and commentary about social media’s role in the presidential election. This week, representatives of Twitter and Facebook, along with Google, testified before Congress about how Russia exploited their platforms to interfere with the election.
But while Russian meddling is a serious problem, the current sentiment toward Silicon Valley borders on scapegoating. Facebook and Twitter are just a mirror, reflecting us. They reveal a society that is painfully divided, gullible to misinformation, dazzled by sensationalism, and willing to spread lies and promote hate. We don’t like this reflection, so we blame the mirror, painting ourselves as victims of Silicon Valley manipulation.
At the hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, squarely blamed the tech companies for Russian interference. “You bear this responsibility,” she said. “You’ve created these platforms.”
But we, the users, are not innocent. Some of the Russian propaganda on social media was cribbed from content that was posted by Americans. Yes, social media helps propaganda spread farther and faster. But Facebook and Twitter didn’t force users to share misinformation. Are Americans so easily duped? Or more alarming, did they simply believe what they wanted to believe?
In the last few months of the presidential campaign, a BuzzFeed News analysis concluded, fake news stories got more Facebook engagement than the most widely read stories from major news outlets. The Russians didn’t single-handedly create this situation; they just jumped into the fray. The real crisis is Americans’ inability or unwillingness to sift fact from fiction, a problem that is worsened by the mainstream media’s loss of credibility when it comes to setting the record straight.
Some blame social media for Donald Trump’s rise to power. The election “shook Silicon Valley’s belief that the internet always fosters societal good,” Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed essay, “Trump used the tools of technology to win.” Twitter remains the perfect vehicle for Mr. Trump’s nuance-free missives. But it’s not Twitter that is making Mr. Trump go viral; it’s Twitter’s users. They include all the citizens and journalists who follow, retweet and reply to Mr. Trump — even when we do so out of shock or outrage or because his statements have news value. If it weren’t for all of us, the president would be shouting into a void.
Twitter could work harder to fight hate speech, but that wouldn’t solve other difficult problems like ideological echo chambers and a general dumbing down of the national conversation, because those are also happening in real life. People already seek out cable television channels and newspaper opinion columns that reinforce their views.
Facebook’s algorithms may encourage echo chambers, but that’s because the company figured out what users want. Have you really never unfriended, unfollowed or muted someone who didn’t agree with you? Those who fret about the idea that many Americans don’t have access to diverse perspectives should scrutinize Americans’ individual choices as well as the platforms on which those choices are made.
Shouldn’t Silicon Valley be able to fix all of this? If Facebook can connect all of humanity, as its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, aims to do, the platform should be able to root out fake news, critics might argue.
But misinformation is a legitimately tricky problem, and the wrong approach could give Silicon Valley even more power than it already has. Who will be the new arbiter of truth? An algorithm? The government? Mr. Zuckerberg or Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey? Some crowdsourcing exercise that involves the “American people,” many of whom believed the fake news in the first place? The real problem is that Americans don’t have a shared sense of reality.
It has become popular to demonize Silicon Valley. Three recent book titles describe big tech as a “wrecking ball,” an “existential threat” and an underminer of democracy. Antonio García Martínez, a former Facebook employee who helped create the company’s ad machine, observed that people feel addicted to Facebook, and then hate themselves and the company because of it. He noted that Facebook is extraordinarily skilled at increasing our addiction. Mr. García Martínez acknowledged in a Twitter exchange that yes, Facebook is effectively giving users what they want, but the question is whether to give it to them. Put another way, shouldn’t social media platforms try to make us eat our vegetables, even if we prefer to gorge ourselves on candy?
A couple of years ago, I was part of a team that tried that very experiment. We ran a Silicon Valley start-up called Parlio, which was later acquired by Quora. Parlio aimed to be a social media platform for civil debate. But what we discovered was that people loved the idea of reasoned debate, then decided that those debates took too much time. Thoughtful content was also less likely to go viral, and many users are addicted to the sugar rush of virality. So while people liked the idea of eating their vegetables, they still gravitated to Twitter’s candy aisle.
Social media platforms magnify our bad habits, even encourage them, but they don’t create them. Silicon Valley isn’t destroying democracy — only we can do that.