Why Facebook’s Algorithms are Destroying Democracy

Jack Samler

According to Pew Research, 61 percent of millennials use Facebook as their primary source for news about politics and government. The implications this could have for democracy’s underpinnings should not be underestimated.

In disrupting the fundamental structures behind traditional information creation, distribution and consumption, social media has been one of the Internet’s most radical and innovative children. Facebook, Twitter et al are era-defining tools that provide a pulpit from which anyone can broadcast their views. With their lack of gatekeepers, they act as catalysts for unbounding information sharing, enabling once frozen-out groups to disintermediate traditional corporate media and craft their own narratives. We have seen, for instance, social media ramp-up great revolutions, helping to topple tyrannies such as Mubarak’s following the Arab Spring uprisings.

In theory, then, social media is civic media: an open, democratized platform that brings the world together and gives a voice to all.

But whilst the platforms themselves have largely been a force for good in the world, the algorithms that power them are becoming an increasingly dangerous source of influence. Social media’s extensive use of content personalisation technologies is threatening the very delicate political system that underpins the Western world: democracy.

As Thomas Jefferson once proclaimed, “a properly functioning democracy depends on an informed electorate”. Being informed means being exposed to well-rounded, complete sets of information. Extremes on either side of any engagement are fine – even healthy – but only when the publishers and consumers of those extremes are aware of the counters. The danger we face today is that, in using the algorithmic-driven confines of social media for an increasing proportion of our news, what we read is tailored just for us. Whilst this can serve to make our lives easier and more efficient, it also restricts the principle that underpins any healthy democracy: healthy debate between different sides.

Instead, the West has a liberal left and a conservative right, with neither being exposed to the reasoned arguments of the other. The result is an electorate that is becoming increasingly polarised: according to Gallup, a record 77% of Americans consider the nation as divided[3]. Views can become solidified not through rationale engagement and argument with the opposition, but through sheer repetition of – often unsubstantiated – claims that are algorithmically served up to us over and over. The more we read, the more we recognise. The more we recognise, the more satisfied we feel. The information we are served does nothing to challenge or change by-now entrenched views. The gap between each side widens, with the centre-ground the sorry victim. Arguments are made to attack the opposition, but the only people who hear those arguments are members of the same side. Political rhetoric becomes self-serving, rather than a tool to persuade, educate and broaden minds. In the words of Barack Obama, we start to live in a world of “bubble politics”, with only 5% of Facebook users and 6% of Twitter users indicating that the people they associate themselves with on these platforms hold different political beliefs from their own[4].

Ultimately, then, content personalisation leads to segregation and sound-proofing. The atomization of tribes is enabled.

Like many HBSers, my Facebook feed was filled with #Remain posts in June and #ImWithHer posts in October. I saw articles from the Economist, the Guardian, the New York Times, Vice. All, of course, liberal behemoths. What about the Daily Mail? Nope. The Express? Not a chance! Fox News? Absolutely not. Too right-leaning. Not for me, says the Facebook algorithm. And you know what? It works. I instead see articles that reinforce my views. That makes me happy. I return to Facebook. Facebook is happy. We are all happy. Clueless about what the sentiments of voters who are different from us, but happy.

Ignorance is bliss, right?

Bliss, until it all comes crashing down. ‘No one’ was expecting Brexit in June. ‘No one’ was expecting Trump to be inaugurated in January. But – let’s be clear – by ‘no one’, I mean people like me and many others at Harvard: the liberals who were joyously, wilfully, stupidly fed on a fat feast of self-reinforcing news articles that repeated everything and challenged nothing.

Zuckerberg has repeatedly said over the years that he runs a “tech company, not a media company”. This is plainly wrong. His (human-created) algorithms make editorial decisions every day and, as such, he has a very serious responsibility to ensure his readership is not misled or closed-off from the other side. This responsibility, too, lies squarely with those of us who are considering entering the social media arena after graduating from HBS – the moral implications of new technologies that change the way information is distributed should not only be considered, but prioritised. As the power of the social media giants grow, they must start to consider themselves not as purely as technology platforms, but media companies with editorial and civic responsibilities.

As part of our LCA course, we were lucky enough to hear from Preet Bharara, one of Wall Street’s most notorious prosecutors. Bharara explained the importance of employees having the conviction to speak up when something needs to change. To this end, MBAs joining the bright lights of Facebook et al must resist the frictionless option of remaining quiet on the issue – as Enron employees were quiet on the actions of their colleagues – but instead have the bravery to be part of the push for accountability.

Without exposure to – and challenge from – alternative views and interpretation, each side will continue to siphon themselves off. It is in that environment that the divisive populist sentiment that has come to define recent times thrives: fear – fear of ‘the other’. We have short memories, but recent history tells us that when you have a leader ready to exploit that fear, the consequences can be devastating.

Jack Samler (HBS ’18) worked in the Strategy & Policy team at the BBC in London before moving to the US to study. He started his career advising technology and media companies across EMEA as a strategy consultant. Jack is a Fulbright Scholar under the British Friends of Harvard Business School Program.