Facebook is starting the new year with a healthy dose of public soul-searching.
Samidh Chakrabarti, a product manager responsible for politics and elections, wrote in a blog post that the company can’t guarantee that social media’s positive effect on democracy will outweigh the negative. ”While I’m an optimist at heart, I’m not blind to the damage that the internet can do to even a well-functioning democracy,” he wrote today in a post for Facebook’s “Hard Questions” blog. “I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can’t.”
While Chakrabarti outlined the benefits and downsides of social media and Facebook’s experience last year, he peppered his post with a less-than-rosy view:
- On foreign interference: “This was a new kind of threat that we couldn’t easily predict, but we should have done better.”
- On fake news: “Even with all these countermeasures, the battle will never end.”
- On political harassment: “Policing this content at a global scale is an open research problem since it is hard for machines to understand the cultural nuances of political intimidation.”
- On citizen participation: Because not everyone uses social media to the same extent, it can “distort policymakers’ perception of public opinion.” Citing academic research, he said that women are under-represented in political dialogue on Facebook.
His post also launched a series of essays by prominent thinkers on social media’s effect on society. The first from Cass Sunstein, Harvard legal scholar, former White House advisor and a mentor to Barack Obama, is similarly ambivalent about the role of social media. Sunstein has also consulted for Facebook.
Personalization ”from the standpoint of democracy, that’s a nightmare,” Sunstein wrote, because it fails to expose people to ideas they do not already agree with. Yet while social media may encourage group polarization, Sunstein wrote,”on balance, they are not merely good; they are terrific.” The more people communicate, the more ”the whole world might change in a hurry,” he wrote.