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In the Nation's Interest

What Happened to Debate?

On August 21, Facebook announced it had found and removed 652 fake accounts, pages, and groups that were trying to undermine the truth, and consequently democracy, by disseminating fabrication around the world.

While Facebook’s war on misinformation is admirable—albeit perhaps a bit late— social media platforms and other institutions should not ignore their role in what is arguably a larger problem: America is increasingly divided into communication “bubbles”—echo-chamber-like conversations built around strongly-held and -expressed opinions. These bubbles extinguish thoughtful discourse and deliberation. Rarely do we communicate with people from different parts of the political spectrum, even about factual events or “real news.” Furthermore, there is little discussion about the extent to which our institutions are responsible for these silos.

Charmath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s VP for User Growth from 2007-2011 is one of the few who have called for accountability, calling Facebook and social media in general “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops [that are] destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation…This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem.”

Palihapitiya is right. Facebook’s very essence makes it nearly impossible to encourage any productive conversation with those holding differing views from your own. Even their new algorithm change, moving away from prioritizing third party organizations to prioritizing your friends’ posts, does little to address the opinion bubbles. We are, after all, more likely to be friends with people of our party. In fact, half of Republicans and Democrats say that they have only a few or no friends from the opposing party.

Many of the large players (social media outlets and government organizations) who could make the sweeping changes necessary to burst our unproductive communication bubbles seem to be turning a blind eye. According to a Pew study, a majority of American adults believe that members of the public, politicians, and social networking sites have a great deal of responsibility or some responsibility for stopping the spread of fake news – but what about responsibility for dangerous and deepening societal divisions?

The FCC, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, relaxed a restriction last year on television stations’ sharing of advertising revenue and easing the cap on how many stations a broadcaster can own—which will tend to concentrate ownership, and therefore the range of opinion expressed.

This regulatory relaxation opened the doors for Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation’s largest operator of local TV stations and leading voice for conservative views, to buy Tribune media. The consolidation would have created a conglomerate that could reach 70% American households. Fortunately, Mr. Pai did express concerns about Sinclair’s deal with Tribune, creating concern amongst the two parties and ending the deal.

Even the Supreme Court’s refusal to take a strong stance on gerrymandering earlier this summer demonstrates a similar institutional unwillingness to encourage real deliberation. In June, the Court decided to put off a ruling on the constitutionality of voting districts drawn explicitly to amplify one party’s political power. This unwillingness to act allows people to live in districts populated by people who hold their own political opinion. And, perhaps more threatening, it allows politicians to safely stay in control without needing to converse with the other side.

We have become so focused on true versus false that we have forgotten about the different convictions and values of different people. Yes, permitting the spread of falsehoods that can cause chaos and disorder is bad; but not encouraging deliberation between different perspectives may be just as dangerous.

From your computer, to your television, to your vote—every part of American life should involve deliberation. That is why we live in a democracy. Our institutions have separated people from those with whom they disagree, and they should take responsibility for figuring out how to break down the silos. Leadership in this area could prove to be far more important than the headline-grabbing war against “fake news.”