Boston University

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.


  1. Alexis Viera

    December 6, 2017 at 7:41 am

    I think your blog post raises a couple of really interesting questions as to what it means to the public and to the government that social media is the future of news.

    Congress’s movement towards adopting paternalistic measures with regard to the consumption of news through social media is an interesting development. Just as they mandate warning labels on cigarette packs, Facebook pages will now be brandished with their own warnings, bidding consumers to tread lightly. But interestingly enough, the Pew statistics you cite indicate that they already do—7% is an atrociously low statistic. The question then arises: if not internally-sprouted distrust, what will stop people from consuming (potentially) fake news?

    It is imperative that this is at the forefront of legislators’ minds as they develop regulatory policies. As fresh as the idea is, the CNBC article does not specify what kind of information about the publishers is going to be publicized. Are they going to report slant, and if so, who gets to identify if one exists? Will noting bias cause the public to accuse the government of influencing what news they consume, thereby failing to influence patterns of consumption? Does it need to say that the site is from Russia for consumers to be wary?

    Even without this information, the proposal is divisive. Expectedly, free speech proponents fear the infringement, just as television broadcasters once feared the Fairness Doctrine. Dennis Thompson argues that paternalism, which inherently infringes on some individual liberty, becomes more and more justifiable the more externalities are involved. In a case such as this, where mass knowledge might hang in the balance (and with it, rational discourse, democracy, and electoral independence), I can’t help but argue in favor.

  2. Julia Banas

    December 11, 2017 at 3:52 pm

    Social media has become increasingly prominent in our society, and your post does a great job demonstrating its effect on news and explaining why Congress is considering reforms. It is interesting that such a small amount of people believe that social media news is trustworthy despite how many people rely on it. Increased transparency and careful monitoring of political ads can prevent foreign influence in United States elections and allow people to receive more accurate news. Something I thought about while reading this post is net neutrality, as it has become a prominent issue recently. The reforms Congress is considering to increase transparency may not matter if net neutrality is repealed, because a user may not have access to the sites that keep them informed. Concerns about democracy exist when considering political ads and news on popular sites like Facebook, so it is important for reforms to occur in order to ensure the public is not being manipulated, but losing access to many different websites is also very dangerous for democracy, because people may not be exposed to correct news if they do not pay for those websites. If these reforms are put in place, it is important to make sure that news is accessible to all, the sources are clear, and the information is accurate.
    A dilemma in this discussion is free speech, an important aspect of democracy, which could potentially be threatened in these reforms. However, as you said, without properly informed citizens, democracy is not successful. The balance between protecting free speech and preventing manipulation will need to be struck in order to ensure that democracy is not put at risk.

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