For a vivid glimpse into the Panglossian worldview of a man with unprecedented power over public discourse, take a look at Adrienne LaFrance’s dispatch in The Atlantic about a meeting between top journalists and Mark Zuckerberg. You can almost see the empty smile on Zuckerberg’s face as he sermonizes about “community” and “common ground” while telling endangered professionals that although “trustworthy news” is important, Facebook will be downplaying credible reporting in order to feature more personal opinions, and sees no reason to license journalistic content. Epistemic breakdown may have no equivalent of the Lisbon earthquake, but one can imagine Zuckerberg standing amidst the ruins, repeating to himself: “Everything is for the best in this best of all community-powered social networks.”
Zeroing in on Zuckerberg’s dubious premise, LaFrance writes: “According to Zuckerberg, the way you find common ground—a common set of facts—is not through professional news outlets, but via individuals. And Facebook, with its 2 billion or so users, has plenty of them.… Show users more opinions, and you give them more options.” But as she concludes: “Deciding what to believe based on other people’s opinions is not only not journalistic, it’s arguably hostile to the press as a democratic institution.” Part of Facebook’s problem is that it seems unable to distinguish between more speech and better speech: It answers critics by promising a better discourse, but seems capable mostly of providing more opinions, and it resolves this tension by pretending the distinction doesn’t exist. The problem, to be precise, is not that “more opinions” is always a bad thing. But more opinions are not always helpful (particularly, as the problem of fake news shows, in settling matters of fact), and little in Facebook’s behavior suggests that its leadership is much concerned with that important distinction.
Even if there were, however, the problem might still remain: As Clara Hendrickson’s essay in Boston Review notes, Facebook may not be able to improve discourse even in settings where a proliferation of opinions is helpful. It’s easy to grant that the verdict of 10,000 oil lobbyists doesn’t outweigh the factual statement of one climate scientist, but the kind of knowledge at which public conversation aims is not always of this sort. An expansive ideal of inclusivity is much better suited for political discourse, for conversations about how we are to live together. But Hendrickson offers a dispiriting summary of what has followed from Facebook’s ascent to a crucial role in this discourse: “As many have noted, Facebook’s algorithm failed to take into account that humans like outrage, enjoy shutting down their ideological opponents, and are quick to believe information that confirms their worldview even if that information is false. In fact, we spread inaccurate information faster than the truth.”
Hendrickson argues that these familiar human frailties are made more dangerous by the relatively consequence-free nature of indulging our demons on social media. “While Facebook users may be empowered to say and share what they want,” she writes, “they do not share a civic space where citizens are accountable to one another in the pursuit and protection of self-government.” In other words, political conversation on Facebook has few of the guardrails—gatekeepers, face-to-face interaction, the implied reciprocity underwritten by the possibility of repeated interaction, and (increasingly) the moderating force of cross-cutting cleavages and allegiances within a diverse population—that tend to regulate public political debate as we experience it in other settings. In some ways, this might be to the good; but the downsides are increasingly undeniable, and as Facebook comes to monopolize how people consume information and process it within an interpretive community, it crowds out these other ways of coming to possess political knowledge. This might be less concerning if it were possible to draw a boundary separating social media from social life. But while it may be true, as Hendrickson writes, that Facebook’s 2 billion users do not share in a common civic space, they all share civic space with somebody, and for many of them, the pathologies of online life are spilling into real politics. That’s important to keep in mind, especially as Facebook continues to push the idea that its expansion is more-or-less synonymous with the expansion of social connection itself.