Social Media News: a Source of Democratic Improvement or Backsliding? by John Iacovino @ Boston University
Congress is considering imposing new restrictions on online political ads, advocating for transparency in content found on social media sites. Regulation on internet advertisement is still generally limited, and advocates for internet anonymity argue that freedom of expression outweighs the potential informative benefits that transparency would bring. Despite this argument, restrictions on advertisements would address a clear hole in our democracy that was already exploited in the 2016 election.
The news sources American voters use has changed significantly in recent years. A study from the Pew Research Center in 2016 found that 62% of Americans get their news from social media—a significant increase from a similar study in 2012 that placed that number at 49%. Social media is already a major source of news for Americans, but in further Pew studies, among those who get their news from social media, only a mere 7% actually trust what they get. It is clear from these statistics that social media news is not a reliable source, despite its prevalence.
Scott Gehlbach cites in his “Reflections on Putin in the Media,” a Russian example of poor quality news media. Gehlbach cites Russia’s 2007 parliamentary election to prove that that voters who are presented with biased partisan news largely default to their existing opinions. This is frightening, as American social media is designed to cater to an individual’s ideological leanings. If Americans are getting their news from a partisan echo chamber that they already do not trust, their capacity to inform themselves is severely limited. Democracy requires its participants to be well-informed to make decisions that benefit them the most; if their information is faulty, their democracy is ineffective.
If Americans continue to educate themselves through social media, the information therein must improve. In response to these congressional proposals for transparency, Facebook has stated that their advertisements in federal elections must now provide information about the advertisers.
This comes in response to evidence of Russian groups using Facebook to manipulate American voters, putting forth highly biased and in some cases factually incorrect political ads in an attempt to affect the outcome 2016 presidential election. According to Barerra et al, a message containing partisan fallacies and “alternative facts” can strongly affect voting intentions and negatively impact a voter’s grasp on the truth. With Facebook and other social media companies developing new restrictions, groups will be forced to reveal their identity, which will limit the potential for foreign involvement and influence on American elections and possibly even inform the public that these sources and the information they provide cannot be trusted.
These proposed restrictions on social media ads have the potential to inform the public in a much better way than they did in the last presidential election. However, these reforms should only be part of a larger goal to drastically improve the quality of information on social media. Social media shows no signs of slowing down as it already reaches a majority of Americans. I have no doubt that it will continue to grow to become the largest source of news. If it does continue this rise, it must also become an intelligent and unbiased source. As I stated before, citizens must be informed for democracy to be successful, and with social media looking to become the most popular source of information in this country, reforms are necessary to ensure that our democracy is helped—not hindered by our predominant news media.