Social media’s business model is a threat to democracy – it’s time to change it
These companies are eroding our democratic institutions. The creator of Facebook’s ‘Like’ button says only public pressure and collective action can put a stop to it
In 2008, I helped create Facebook’s “Like” button. We were motivated by a simple question: “Can we spread more positivity and love in the world?” We wanted to build a feature that offered people more human connection.
Over a decade later, we have overwhelming evidence that social media – and its prioritization of Like-ability over truth – has had catastrophic, unintended consequences. We’re weeks away from an unprecedented US general election, which has become a referendum not only on political leadership, but also on the legitimacy of democracy. How did we get here? In no small part because social media platforms have degraded meaningful connection, threatened people’s ability to vote in fair and free elections and undermined faith in, and the future of, democracy.
As long as technology companies are incentivized to maximize profits, technology will be built that rewards shareholders at the expense of society
This is not fake news. For millions who have felt the effects, it’s not news at all. We have seen social media destabilize elections worldwide. We have felt our conversations become polarized. We have measured increasing rates of depression and cyberbullying, and seen both change the lives of our children. We have heard early social media employees speak out, myself included, most recently in the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma.
What haven’t we seen? Systemic change.
Social media and its content-recommendation algorithms are designed to maximize the amount of attention we give them. The more of your attention companies mine, the more ads they can sell and the more money they make. Unfortunately, outrage, blame and salacious lies are more engaging than nuanced truth.
As I’ve said before, prioritizing profit at the expense of the public good is not new. Because trees are worth more money dead than alive, people cut down trees. Because whales are worth more dead than alive, people kill whales. And because humans are worth more staring at screens than out living rich lives, platforms keep us staring.
As long as technology companies are incentivized to maximize profits, technology will be built that rewards shareholders at the expense of society. Absurdly, they have a legally-binding fiduciary duty to do so. Without radical changes to corporate incentives, companies will continue to degrade and threaten the future of democracy.
When it comes to elections, companies default to blaming bad content and bad users. Disinformation and manipulation existed long before social media, but social media’s structure and algorithms favor them, profit from them and enable their virality. Lies spread six times faster than truth on Twitter. In 2016, Facebook admitted that 64% of the growth of extremist groups occurred due to their own recommendation algorithm. A 2020 study found that misinformation on Facebook is three times more popular than during the last US presidential election.
In this year’s election, both presidential candidates have poured money into social media ads. Biden blitzed Facebook over the summer. Trump pre-purchased YouTube’s homepage for early November. Since June, they have spent a combined $100 million [€85 million] in ads on Instagram and Facebook.
But because of social media platforms' algorithms and incentives, it’s not legitimate election content that goes viral. It’s the lies, fear, fabricated conspiracy theories and threats of violence. These have resulted in fears of social unrest on and after election day. Twitter and Facebook’s efforts to flag the most egregious false and dangerous posts have not kept pace with relentless misinformation campaigns that are undermining people’s very faith in democracy.
Disinformation and manipulation existed long before social media, but social media’s structure and algorithms favor them, profit from them and enable their virality
I know that social media companies didn’t set out to become vehicles for dangerous political propaganda. But they have not made the deep structural changes to address it – and we, the people, are bearing the costs.
Despite what companies would lead you to believe, the solution is not hiring more content moderators or training better AI to detect misinformation. These are band-aids. The system is broken. Real change requires changes to the structure of social media companies' corporate governance. The solution to saving our democracy from these companies is, in fact, to apply the principles of democracy directly to these companies.
Imagine, for example, if Facebook reported to a Board of the People instead of a Board of Directors. This Board of the People, made up of diverse stakeholders from many walks of life, would decide the company’s high-level goals, what metrics mattered and when to hire a new CEO. Instead of defining success on financial metrics, the Board could ask to optimize for metrics that strengthen democratic institutions and individual lives, like users reporting greater empathy for other people’s perspectives, reduction in loneliness and increased quality of mental health.
Over the last decades, countries worldwide have used such advanced democratic processes to empower citizens to make change. In both 2015 and 2018, Ireland celebrated after amending its constitution under the guidance of a Citizens' Assembly, a representative sample of the Irish population that worked through structured collaboration and facilitated processes. In 2020, Taiwan gracefully managed its Covid-19 outbreak through digital democracy tools that built trust and leveraged citizen participation.
Does this sound utopian? It is compared to what we have now. It is also possible.
Companies can choose to change, but we can’t wait for them to do so. Public pressure from social media users, from politicians and governments, and from company employees is vital. Public pressure starts with a global understanding of the harm these platforms cause our families and our institutions. It accelerates when people refuse to accept the status quo and demand changes for our public good. It succeeds with collective action: when we, the people, change our own use of social media and demand change from our public officials.
Twitter and Facebook’s efforts to flag the most egregious false and dangerous posts have not kept pace with relentless misinformation campaigns that are undermining people’s very faith in democracy
This work has begun. Governments and politicians have increased pressure on platforms, including new anti-trust and public accountability measures. Inside social media companies, employees have begun walking out and standing up against policies, actions and platform features that do not align with the public good or collective ethics. The Social Dilemma was the top movie on Netflix in September – unprecedented for a documentary. Millions of people worldwide have watched it, often with their families and spoken up about the negative impacts social media platforms have had on their lives.
We’ve seen the impact of public pressure in recent social movements, like the call to #End SARS in Nigeria and reform the police in the United States and in changes caused by the #MeToo movement. The more pressure companies feel from users, regulators and employees, the more leverage we have to force real change.
In the United States, we’ve begun voting in an election where the stakes are exceptionally high, and trust in democracy is exceptionally low. If social media is going to dominate our public square, we have to ensure democratic principles take priority over profits. We, the people, have a right to govern the institutions that shape our lives. That’s what it means to live in a democracy.
Justin Rosenstein is a prominent voice in The Social Dilemma and the founder of One Project, a social venture aiming to advance democracy to meet the challenges of the Internet age and enable global collaboration through advances in civics, economics, technology, and culture. Previously he co-founded Asana and helped build some of today’s most-used tech features, including Google Drive and Facebook’s “Like” button.