Facebook has ruined political discourse
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The 2016 Presidential Election exposed in excruciating detail how terrible social media, specifically the ease with which Facebook users can share fake news stories appearing in their newsfeeds, is for having a constructive political discourse in America.
This is not to say that political discourse has ever been at a high level in the past, but since the explosion of money in campaign politics, along with the 24-hour news cycle, political discussion in America has gotten progressively worse.
Where once we would at least attempt to ask intelligent questions of our candidates vying for the most important job in America, this past election cycle instead focused on questions about various vulgarities and apparent scandals. According to an article from the Guardian examining time spent on various topics during the third presidential debate, half of the allotted 90 minutes were spent arguing about the candidates various gaffes and scandals, while no time at all was dedicated to discussing climate change.
Facebook has played an integral role in determining the way in which the public approached the 2016 election. According to a 2016 Pew Research study, 44 percent of Facebook users get the majority of their news from the site. More disturbing than 44 percent of Americans using Facebook as their main news source is the amount of transparently fake news that ends up in Facebook newsfeeds daily.
Look through any Facebook newsfeed and one will undoubtedly come across some click-bait title like, “Seven ways to lose weight that your doctor will hate!” or “You won’t believe what these celebrities look like now!” As terrible as those articles are, click-bait travels into dangerous territory when articles are shared hundreds of thousands of times for having inflammatory titles that expose one politician or another for some terrible scandal that is completely false. Take for example a story posted by the fake news site Proud-Patriots in early November, a site that has over 266,000 likes on its Facebook page- “Breaking: Hillary Clinton Indicted… Your Prayers Have Been Answered!” Website creators have seen the amount of revenue that can be generated from advertising through getting clicks on a page, and they take advantage by creating fake, hyper-partisan stories that appeal to the worst fears of people, while also confirming their biases toward one side or the other.
The result of this sort of news consumption, along with the ability to quickly share and discuss news on Facebook, leads to an even further fracturing of intelligent debate and discussion. Facts become irrelevant while base emotions, like anger and fear, take over. This leads to hate-filled comments and hurt feelings, all the while slowly becoming disgusted with the political process in general. Why would anyone want to engage in political discourse when all that happens is name-calling and behavior that would embarrass a five-year-old?
In Sept. 2016, Facebook and Twitter joined a coalition started by Google to try and cut down on the spread of fake news how they will go about this in practice is still unknown. While that is a start, ultimately, we the people need to take responsibility. We need to hold our media sources accountable for the spread of fake news, and most importantly we need to think critically about where and how we consume news in general. It doesn’t matter what side of the debate one falls on, if one cannot stand how things are going, the solution is not to post about it on Facebook and start an argument. The solution is to get out there and do something about it- whether that is volunteering your time for a cause you agree with, becoming active in your community or even running for office. As President Obama has said multiple times in multiple speeches over the years, “You are the change you have been waiting for.”