Following Donald Trump’s surprise election upset, plenty of insiders and critics alike are pointing their fingers at the media. But there is plenty of blame to go around, and we shouldn’t forget about social media.
Needless to say, Twitter, Facebook and Reddit all have played a big role in this election. Pew Research reported earlier this week that 20% of social media users have changed their stance on a social or political issue because of things they saw on the services of their choice. About 17% changed their opinion on a candidate because of social media.
One the one hand, that’s not surprising. Twitter and Facebook are the new newspaper for millions of users, with their friends and peers replacing curating editors. But it’s also an incredible scary data point, considering how much bile and fake news have been circulating on social media.
Facebook in particular has been criticized frequently for featuring made-up news stories not only in its news feed, but also in its list of recommended news stories. The company came under fire for a perceived bias in its curation efforts earlier this year, and responded by firing the human editors of its trending news section. Since then, it’s algorithms have surfaced a number of discredited stories, including one claiming that Megyn Kelly was going to be fired by Fox News for backing Hillary Clinton.
Many more found their way into users’ news feeds, including one alleging that Clinton adviser John Podesta was a satanist. Some of these stories may have been authored by paid trolls aiming to influence the election on the behalf of forces like Russia. Many more have likely just been simple clickbait with no regards for the truth.
Twitter played an equally damaging part this election by offering a fertile ground for an army of racist trolls that descended on women, people of color and even conservative journalists critical of Trump, spewing hatred and terrorizing their victims. In turn, they normalized hate, to the point where Trump’s bigoted remarks about immigrants seemed almost tame.
And Reddit, self-described front page of the internet, has equally become a breeding ground for the alt right nationalist movement that powered parts of Trump’s campaign, with some seeing it playing a key role in radicalizing young white males.
“When we talk about online radicalization, we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalization of white men online is at astronomical levels,” explained writer Siyanda Mohutsiwa in a remarkable series of tweets Wednesday morning. “These online groups found young white men at their most vulnerable & convinced them liberals were colluding to destroy white Western manhood.”
Twitter had long seen itself as the free speech arm of the free speech party. That ethos, and the fear that radical changes to its service could further slow its user growth, have resulted in a paralyzed state, with Twitter staring in the eyes of the snake without being able to move.
Only recently, the company seems to have been able to at times break the spell. Not only did it take action in a few high-profile cases after Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey personally interfered, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it has also stepped up some of its day-to-day anti-harassmemt efforts. When a Twitter user recently called for the lynching of The Intercept writer Sam Biddle, the service responded promptly by taking down the user’s account. “Wow, I’ve literally never seen this,” tweeted Biddle afterwards.
That’s a start, but not nearly enough – and executives at Twitter, Facebook and Reddit know that they need to do more. Silicon Valley had been one of the most vocal supporters of Hillary Clinton, and they used their services to get out the vote. Now, they need to spend at least as much energy combating hate, harassment and disinformation. Our democracy depends on it.