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.

5 Comments

  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.

  3. Jake Hempel

    May 1, 2018 at 9:29 am

    I completely agree with you that social media has been a major hindrance in both the country’s political efficacy and the reliability of news. Even many college students are opening snapchat and checking their DailyMail for news stories rather than consulting a newspaper or reading Politico articles or seemingly more reliable ways. While I agree that there is room for improvement, I struggle to understand how this would be possible. I feel as if any sort of restriction on free media or social media would be both a breach of the first amendment but also a factor of backsliding because of silencing certain voices. While these voices are manipulative and may bring out the worst in American elections, I think there could have been more focus on negative campaign advertisement and other factors that shrink validity in American politics.

  4. stotomas.michelleanne@gmail.com

    May 12, 2018 at 10:21 pm

    I stand with your argument that social media news is not a reliable source, proved by your statistics. We are experiencing the same concern in the Philippines. Partisanship do exists in social media because of uncontrolled algorithms which allows the user view news that satisfies or favours him/her. On a personal note, media literacy in the Philippines (and most probably also in other countries) has to be fortified. The widespread “fake and alternative facts” that is an oxymoron if I may say, were being enjoyed by those being served by it. President Duterte is dubbed in the Philippines as the Social Media President, a title he didn’t have to work on because he has an army of social media supporters. With this, to Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike, social media news is something that must alarm us all as to how it can monopolize our ideologies about democracy. To answer the question your blog tried to address, I should say social media currently has been contributing to democratic backslide, controlling the public with alternative facts without them knowing. And this window have seen as an opportunity by leaders, what’s worse, to convince that the country is a democracy. I have provided the same question in my blog that focused on countering media hegemony – how do we educate all the citizens about media literacy? How do we take away the public from the dominant position to the critical position of decoding messages to save democracy?

  5. Nicole Tolenoa

    April 8, 2019 at 10:07 pm

    I found this post to be the most interesting because I find that social media is plays a huge role in how people decide which politicians to support, which party to identity with, and what to believe. Many people will look on social media sites to get their information on presidents, concurring events, policies, worldwide news–pretty much any piece of information. Many people will believe whatever news they see being reported if they see it fit. I have come to notice, even in my own personal experiences, is that media coverage of politics pops up on someones timeline without them searching for any information. I have also come to notice that a lot of people don’t look into the sources that is outputting the information they are reading. I do believe that having tougher restrictions on the use of social media would decrease the chances of democratic erosion.

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