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A Follow Up On Op-Ed: 'Facebook Wins, Democracy Loses'

Dec 26, 2017
Originally published on December 26, 2017 12:02 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On the list of influential forces in 2017, you probably have to mention Facebook. Given all the talk of fake news spreading on social media and also Russians using social media platforms to run election ads, Facebook has to be there. Before we go on, we do want to mention that Facebook does pay NPR and other media organizations to create video content for its site. Now, Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, says he sees his social network as a tool to, quote, "build community and bring the world closer together." But media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan says that sort of idealism has left the site vulnerable to some serious abuse.

SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: His deep belief in his own ability to create a technology that he believes will bring people together, will improve the state of human communication basically left him and left Facebook unable to anticipate that some people are really bad and that the platform itself was very easy to hijack.

GREENE: Well, give me an example because I think a lot of Americans just know the story of...

VAIDHYANATHAN: Yeah.

GREENE: ...Russia and the United States.

VAIDHYANATHAN: Yeah. There's a scholar at the University of Washington named Katie Pearce who for years has been tracking how the dictatorial regime in Azerbaijan has been exploiting Facebook to harness forces that will troll any critics or journalists or opposition movements. And this is a toolkit that we've seen used among the followers of Prime Minister Modi in India. We've seen it among the followers of President Duterte in the Philippines. And we've seen it at the most frightening level in the attacks on the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

GREENE: Well, could Facebook in cases like this - I mean, let's use the Rohingya and Myanmar as an example. Couldn't it also be used for good in the way that Mark Zuckerberg dreamed about? I mean, couldn't people use Facebook to build support for the Rohingya and talk about how good they are and how persecuted they are?

VAIDHYANATHAN: Yeah, and that's happening. It's just not happening as effectively or efficiently. Basically what we are facing here is that Facebook is a communicative medium that is really well-designed for motivation. Whether that motivation is to occupy a park in Lower Manhattan to protest Wall Street or to generate essentially genocide against the Rohingya, motivation is something that works really well on Facebook. What doesn't work really well is deliberation because Facebook itself - the algorithms amplify strong emotional content. Those are the things most likely to be shared. And if they're most likely to be shared, then exponentially they get shared because Facebook's algorithms pick up those signals. It becomes really hard for messages that are deliberative and careful to spread on Facebook. Those things drop like a rock.

GREENE: And do you feel that Facebook is coming to this recognition because Mark Zuckerberg made a number of concessions? I mean, September he laid out this nine-step plan to be more transparent, saying he's working with government agencies and election commissions to make sure that he monitors and patrols this problem. Is that encouraging to you?

VAIDHYANATHAN: It's encouraging that there seems to be a recognition of some of the problems, but the problem with Facebook is Facebook. It's not any particular attribute along the margins that can be fixed and reformed. Any time that you can imagine a social media platform that connects 2.2 billion people and has a remarkably powerful and precise ad platform, you're going to have trouble.

GREENE: Social media is not going away. Facebook is not going away. So I mean, you might think that the very nature of Facebook is the problem, but if they're not going away, what would you do to stop the proliferation of fake news on social media. And you know, who bears responsibility for it?

VAIDHYANATHAN: We all do, and no one does. Basically we can't. We are stuck with this. Yeah, sure, you can say, look; Facebook's never going to go away. Social media is never going to go away. The problem is, democracy might go away. It's gone away before. It's gone away in other places. Democracy is more fragile right now than one of the five largest capitalized companies in the world. That's a problem. We should not be in that situation, but that's the situation we're in.

GREENE: Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. He's also the author of an upcoming book about Facebook. Professor, thanks so much for joining us.

VAIDHYANATHAN: My pleasure. Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.