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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

How Social Media Has Harmed the Growth of Democratic Culture by Design

Berkley Center Georgetown University

Berkley Center Georgetown University

Subramaniam Vincent

This article was originally published on the Berkley Forum, part of The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University on February 26, 2021. 

Subramaniam Vincent (@subbuvincentis the director of journalism & media ethics at the Markkula Center of Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

The image of the January 6 insurrection that stands out most to me is the one with a rioter walking in the U.S. Capitol with a Confederate battle flag. At the heart of social media’s role in this insurrection is a pattern of democracy-deficit perpetuation. The world has seen this before, albeit in a different sphere: markets. The work of economists over the past decades has shown that markets have never on their own redistributed the gains of trade and wealth creation equitably to all those to contribute. Without checks and balances, they simply perpetuate inequalities.

Likewise, social media platforms—led by young, tech, and white male CEOs—have argued that they are a force for good, for “connecting the world” and “bringing us closer together.” True, in specific instances, platforms are powering the speech and organizing for democratic social movements around the world. But by their very design, social media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit in particular—have for a long time offered equal opportunity to sellers of “Big Lies,” conspiracy theories, and political disinformation. And because of how the human brain works on social media and how lying politicians and their propagandists knowingly exploit this, speech platforms have only perpetuated and hardened preexisting cultural deficits that lurk in every democracy. 

"By their very design, social media platforms have for a long time offered equal opportunity to sellers of “Big Lies,” conspiracy theories, and political disinformation."

The importance of human behavior as a contributor to the problem of misinformation was captured saliently by Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral. In their 2018 paper they write: “We conclude that human behavior contributes more to the differential spread of falsity and truth than automated robots do.” 

Daniel Kahneman, in his seminal book, Thinking Fast and Slow, laid out an accessible foundation for how we think. The brain is “a machine for jumping to conclusions,” writes Kahneman. He metaphorically describes our brains operating in two systems, System 1 and 2, both influencing each other. System 1 is the faster, emotional, instinctive, and intuitive brain. System 2 is the slower, lazier, but more deliberate and reasoning brain. On belief, discussing the work of psychologist Daniel Gilbert, Kahneman points out that “even nonsensical statements evoke initial belief.” Gilbert had proposed in his essay “How Mental Systems Believe” that “understanding a statement must begin with an attempt to believe it: you must first know what the idea would mean if it were true. Only then can you decide whether or not to unbelieve it.” Kahneman extends that argument to show that the initial attempt to believe is System 1 in action. System 2 of our brain is needed to undo it. System 1 does not keep alternatives for critical or deliberate comparison; System 2 does. But if System 2 is busy, System 1 will jump to conclusions. 

System 1 uses associative memory whose operations contribute to general confirmation bias, notes Kahneman. “The confirmation bias of System 1 favors uncritical acceptance of suggestions and exaggeration of the likelihood of extreme and improbable events. System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but it can be busy, it is lazier and also requires more effort.” And even System 2, when it comes into play, “makes a deliberate search for confirming evidence to test a hypothesis.” Kahneman’s work is an illuminating foundation to understanding our vulnerabilities and applying that to the digital misinformation era [1]. 

In another seminal book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolsky explains how the activation of the amygdala, a tiny, almond-shaped part of our brain, during fear mongering, for instance, almost instantly returns our brain to the many older “us vs. them” dichotomies of race and tribe. In his PBS series The Brainsocial neuroscientist David Eagleman notes that propaganda dials down our ability to care for “others.” Cultural values, which are meshed with deeply held beliefs, are the biggest driver of our everyday behavior, including and especially sharing of “content” online. 

"Cultural values, which are meshed with deeply held beliefs, are the biggest driver of our everyday behavior, including and especially sharing of 'content' online."

How does this play into social media platforms perpetuating democratic-cultural deficits? The one group of people who have always understood our behavioral vulnerabilities to disinformation and plain lies are politicians. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s writing on lies, truth, and politics offers stark lessons, especially for social media platforms. Her lines in a 1971 piece in the New York Review of Books are tellingly applicable to the “Stop the Steal” slogan of 2020-21:

"If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer...And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please."

Writing about the significance of Arendt’s work, Samantha Rose Hill, assistant director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, says that “the political lie has always been used to make it difficult for people to trust themselves or make informed opinions based on fact.” 

Going further back in time from Arendt is a history of disinformation and mass-circulated conspiracy theories in American society and culture. Annika Neklason, in an insightful and foresightful piece in The Atlantic on the conspiracy theories that fueled the Civil War, said this: "These conspiracy theories made an existential threat out of emancipation, and insidious enemies out of northern antislavery forces. Eventually, they became so powerful that southern leaders decided to break from the Union and launch the Civil War. Their racist defenses of slavery could not admit the possibility of a peaceable emancipation such as the one that Lincoln and northern abolitionists actually sought." Historian Manisha Sinha, quoted by Neklason, says that “slaveholders worked to further unite the white South in fear of rebellion by circulating the ‘diametrically opposed image’ of enslaved people as innately violent and dangerous.” 

When a society props up conspiracy theories about groups it dehumanizes, it should not surprise that such cultural forces will also suppress the latter’s democratic struggles for equality and justice from public memory. African American historian Kidada Williams has a new podcast, Seizing Freedom, with moving stories of Black men and women fighting for freedom during Reconstruction. Williams is plain about entire generations of Americans, including the more recent immigrants, being given a white-edited memory (that is, implicit cultural bias) of the Civil War. “I didn’t have any exposure to anything other than a White male, military-centered history of the Civil War. So that was K-12,” she says in an interview. Williams’ podcast is a reminder that our white-centered American press—after all, journalism creates and sustains public memory—played its hand in perpetuating white supremacy. It suppressed the voices of scores of Black Americans and their stories and perpetuated stereotypical images to fit into an unyielding Jim Crow culture [2]. Atonement in the press did begin, but only in the 2000s.

"What we are dealing with around the world as illiberal movements attack democratic progress is cultural conflict manifesting as information disorder."

This memoryless-ness and blackout of meaning—for and about democracy, from the African American journey—is one of America’s cultural deficits. For decades, this deficit has shown up in unwillingness by both political parties (until recently) to begin the conversation on a study for reparations. All of this lay baked upstream of the speech platforms when they proudly launched starting the early 2000s. On the platforms, by design, scores of us, most of the time, are thinking fast, clicking fast, sharing political content around our identity for in-group validation. Frictionless design and recommendation algorithms drive emotive, large-scale group expression, corrupting opinion formation and organizing over widely discredited claims and lies. The whole behavioral pattern playing out on social media simply perpetuates the division and solidarity lacuna that underlies the big cultural deficit.

So, when social media CEOs cite their cherishing of speech and free expression for everyone as a justification for their design, the starting point for any ethics critique must be whether they have taken cognizance of the many deficits in every country’s democratic and democratizing culture. They have not. Instead until the insurrection, they allowed politicians and politics to let this cultural deficit—both memories and anti-democratic values—find a home in digital experiences, organizing, and in turn large-scale validation seeking. They allowed blanket newsworthiness exemptions to politicians at least until last fall, when they reluctantly started to change course.

Indeed, what manifests as information disorder and a trust deficit hides underneath it a cultural deficit, and I would argue, a cultural disorder. It took an insurrection for Facebook and Twitter to deplatform Donald Trump. Our current “information disorder” frame is useful. It helps us battle against disinformation with factual truths, forensics, journalism training, and content moderation (platforms harm mitigation). But it will only go so far. What we are dealing with around the world as illiberal movements attack democratic progress is cultural conflict manifesting as information disorder. Social media firms have to ask themselves this question: How might we explicitly support democratic culture in a redesign?

  1. ​This paragraph is taken from my "Understanding the Demand-Side of Misinformation and Analyzing Solutions," in Fake News: Real Issues in Modern Communication, ed. Russell Chun and Susan J. Drucker (New York: Peter Lang, 2020), chapter four.
  2. See the "Media Reparations" report of the Media2070 group for detailed examples.
Mar 9, 2021

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