This article was originally published in The Atlantic on May 7, 2017.
There’s a wealth of tech-centric explanations for a 2016 presidential election that defied expectations and has many Americans scared about our civic future. Fake news. Cambridge Analytica. Filter bubbles. Russian hacking. WikiLeaks. Propaganda bots.
It’s almost as if people are loath to admit that we live in a deeply divided nation (remember Bush v. Gore, anyone?) where Americans of all political stripes have lost much of their trust in government. Fixing Facebook’s algorithms to filter out fake news seems easier than fixing a dysfunctional Congress or the campaign finance system.
My colleague Yochai Benkler and I recently offered a different explanation for Trump’s election. With our teams at Harvard and MIT, we analyzed 1.25 million news stories, using hyperlinks and mentions on Twitter and Facebook to map the ecosystem of campaign media. We discovered that while left and centrist voters relied heavily on traditional media to understand the election, the dominant source of information shared by right-wing voters on Facebook and Twitter was Breitbart, which anchored a media ecosystem of new, online-only outlets that mixed propaganda and conspiracy theory with partisan news.
These sites, we found, are not fake news in the usual sense of wholly fabricated articles written to earn online ad dollars, but hyperpartisan, partly factual news. Their partial truth, as well as their invocations of familiar, false narratives that are common within an echo chamber, make them very hard to debunk. Read something unbelievable on the Daily Caller and you are likely to find it echoed on the Washington Examiner, InfoWars, and Breitbart. This echo chamber was responsible, we believe, for taking a fringe position on ending legal immigration, making it central to the 2016 presidential campaign and ultimately, for helping the candidate willing to support this position rise to the presidency.
So, haven’t we just replaced one tech-centric explanation with another? Not quite. If the combination of online news, social media, and echo chambers led to political polarization and ideological capture, we’d expect to see the same phenomenon on the left as on the right. We don’t. In our study, people who read far-left sources like Daily Kos or Mother Jones are generally also engaged with center and center-left sources like the New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN. The new right’s echo chamber is hermetically sealed, while the left’s is not. (Of course, if you’re within that hermetically sealed chamber, you’re likely to see CNN as just as left-leaning at The Nation.)
Being able to escape echo chambers and encounter a wide picture of news may be a necessary precursor towards a functioning democracy. The early United States featured a highly partisan press—historian Paul Starr argues that political parties emerged from newspapers, rather than vice-versa—but also had a strong cultural norm of republishing a wide range of stories from different parts of the early nation and different political leanings. Examining early American newspapers raises the uncomfortable possibility that our forebearers, more than two centuries ago, may have encountered a wider range of views than we elect to encounter today.
The best public broadcasters in strong democracies—Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany—use their position to bring a wide range of perspectives and voices into the broader public dialog. This commitment to diversity goes beyond ensuring that the right and left both have a voice: CBC goes out of its way to feature indigenous First Nations voices, while the BBC maintains a vast reporting network in Africa and Asia.
An idea for those seeking a technical solution to our polarization and isolation: public social media. Private platforms like Facebook are under no obligation to provide us a diverse worldview. If it is more profitable to bring us baby pictures from our friends than political stories, or to isolate us in a bubble of ideologically comfortable information, they will. A public social media platform would have the civic mission of providing us a diverse and global view of the world. Instead of focusing resources on reporting, it would focus on aggregating and curating, pushing unfamiliar perspectives into our feeds and nudging us to diversity away from the ideologically comfortable material we all gravitate towards.
As with most public broadcasters, we’d debate whether this perspective-broadening aggregator was really fair and unbiased. (If we’re smart, we’d build an aggregator where the algorithms can be reviewed by scholars and auditors, and where users could tune their preferences to receive more or less diversity in their feeds.) We’d argue about whether it was reaching a broad enough audience and whether it was worth our tax dollars. We might well end up hating it. But we probably need it.
And, either way, the stakes are too high not to attempt to find out.
Ethan Zuckerman is the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and the principal research scientist at MIT's Media Lab. He is the author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.
This article is part of The Democracy Project, a collaboration with The Atlantic.