We Can’t Rely on Social Media Networks to Protect Democracy

The real reason we can’t rely on social media networks to protect Democracy is that social media networks were fundamentally built on the idea of sensationalism. The next time you look into your Facebook Timeline or view YouTube video, notice the nature of the content surrounding what you’re viewing. I like looking at boat videos. If you look boat videos on YouTube you’ll often be recommended a ‘boating fail video’, ‘boat launch fails’, ‘epic boating fails’, etc. I don’t want to see people getting hurt or boats crashing necessarily. But many people do. Google/YouTube, Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, and other social media networks are all built the same way, to catch your eye and get you to click. It’s called ‘click bait’ and traditional media is not immune either. TV stations use sensationalism when they feature LA car chases and radio stations do the same when they feature shock jocks like Howard Stern. Outrageous, shocking, and sensationalist content drives ears and eyeballs to the networks that host them and that drives advertising sales. When a TV Network knowingly broadcasts a false and shocking claim it’s because it drives more viewers to the network. The same is true for social media networks.

Recently Facebook knowingly posted a ‘deep fake’ video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stammering at a press conference. President Trump re-posted the video as real and Fox News shared it as an example of an unstable Speaker. Only after everyone was talking about it and Facebook and Fox News had made some money off this false video did Facebook clarify that it wasn’t real and Fox News backtracked.  Social media and broadcast TV networks are not in the business of truth; and neither is Google or Bing for that matter. But I’ll share thoughts on that in a later post. These social media networks are in the advertising business and they use information, which is often false, misleading, or shocking, to drive ad sales.

By design, social media networks are a platform to use as users decide. There are no ethics or governors on this information except for the limited filters the user can employ. Russia figured this out awhile ago and later so did the Trump campaign. If you search Facebook and YouTube videos and look carefully at the amount of Russian content it’s truly staggering. When’s the last time you saw a road rage incident, a happy bear playing in a snowy backyard, or ‘epic fail’ video? If you click on this content, (and honestly who knows what’s embedded in that content?), and scroll to the bottom you’ll often find the content does not come from the US. Regardless, sensationalist content is a method for delivering more content and that means more clicks and more dollars. Google and Facebook get paid for those clicks as does the content provider. So when we click on that content we are complicit.

You can say almost anything online and for awhile you actually could say anything. It’s only when users would complain about the content that it would be taken down. So Russia and the Trump campaign used false content to engage with angry Americans who in turn shared the false messages and unknowingly, shared political and personal information.

What’s frightening to me is that most Americans, including most media outlets, and most congressmen and women, don’t know this is happening or how it works. But the fundamental takeaway here is that these huge networks don’t have a social conscious algorithm. They have click bait algorithms. What’s almost as scary as how these algorithms are working is how the conversation about regulation may lead to legislators writing laws about things they don’t understand, and in the process begin to limit free speech.

Here are some topics that have come from these observations and that I’ll cover in future posts:

  1. Google is not in the truth business and often does not provide you with the correct answer to your question.
  2. Mainstream media is guilty of presenting fake news as real.
  3. Social media networks are as just as essential to freedom as they are a danger to democracy.
  4. Real news is out there, although not as shocking and sensationalist as what we are viewing.
  5. You can champion real news sources and you can be real news.


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