Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, is a philanthropist, technologist and humanitarian. He is a member of The WorldPost editorial board.
While it’s hard to believe that helping strangers connect through the Internet was ever a radical idea, when I started eBay 22 years ago, it felt more like a social experiment than a business endeavor. And in many ways, it was.
Back then, online commerce was a new and wild frontier. I believed in our mission to empower people to conduct private trade on the Internet, but there were unforeseeable challenges lurking deep in those uncharted waters. I had a lot to learn, and I felt a deep responsibility to help build an accountable and sustainable new industry — a weight that the leaders of today’s evolving social media industry shoulder as well.
For all the ways this technology brings us together, the monetization and manipulation of information is swiftly tearing us apart. From foreign interference in our elections to targeted campaigns designed to confuse and divide on important social issues, groups looking for an effective way to infiltrate and influence our democracy have found generous hosts in the world of social media.
But the time has come for these unwelcome guests to leave the party.
For years, Facebook has been paid to distribute ads known as “dark posts,” which are only shared with highly targeted users selected by advertisers. When these ads are political or divisive in nature, their secrecy deprives those affected by the ads the opportunity to respond in a timely manner — say, before an election concludes. It also allows outsiders, such as the Russian government, to influence and manipulate U.S. citizens from the shadows.
Facebook has since shared its plan to protect the integrity of future elections and increase transparency and monitoring of its advertising. It’s an aggressive effort, and I am cautiously optimistic about the company’s dedication to addressing the vulnerabilities of its platform. But even if these safeguards are successful, we’re still just beginning to address how social media across all platforms is being used to undermine transparency, accountability and trust in our democracy.
The Omidyar Group works to address, in part, how to support and protect our democratic values. Recently, a team from two of our organizations, Democracy Fund and Omidyar Network, assembled to investigate the relationship between social media and democracy. The initial findings are detailed in a paper that identifies six key areas where social media has become a direct threat to our democratic ideals:
1. Echo chambers, polarization and hyper-partisanship
In many ways, the design of certain social media platforms mirrors the growing volume of partisan media in traditional channels. As they increasingly become a primary distribution channel, social media platforms create bubbles of one-sided information and opinions, perpetuating biased views and diminishing opportunities for healthy discourse.
2. Spread of false or misleading information
Viral disinformation or misinformation, commonly dubbed “fake news,” runs rampant across social media channels, disseminated by both state and private actors. These false and distorted pieces of information can intensify divisiveness and make it difficult for people to trust both what they read as well as the people and institutions they are reading about.
3. Conflation of popularity with legitimacy
The idea that likes or retweets can be used to measure validity or mass support for a person, message or organization creates a distorted system of evaluating information and provides a false pulse on the popularity of certain views. This is compounded by how challenging it is to distinguish legitimately expressed opinions from those generated by trolls and bots.
4. Political manipulation
Such trolls and bots, disguised as ordinary citizens, have become a weapon of choice for governments and political leaders to shape online conversations. Governments in Turkey, China, Israel, Russia and the United Kingdom are known to have deployed thousands of hired social media operatives who run multiple accounts to shift or control public opinion.
5. Manipulation, micro-targeting and behavior change
Advertisers and their sophisticated targeting mechanisms drive the attention economy. Not all of these messages look like ads or are visible to anyone outside the target population, as was the case with Facebook’s recent admissions surrounding Russian-sponsored ads purchased during the U.S. election. This model further widens the gap between publishers and journalists and erodes the revenue and sustainability of traditional news organizations charged with holding the powerful accountable.
6. Intolerance, exclusion and hate speech
Various policies and features of these platforms can amplify hate speech, terrorist appeals, and racial and sexual harassment. These environments can deter those targeted by hate speech from engaging in the conversation.
Our hope is that this research will serve as a starting point for social media leaders, policymakers, government officials and other key stakeholders to delve deeper into the impact this technology is having on our nation and, ultimately, to identify tangible solutions. This isn’t a partisan problem, and it’s not something any one person, company or government can fix. But someone must lead the charge, and I respectfully call upon the social media companies at the center of this issue to drive this critical dialogue.
Just as new regulations and policies had to be established for the evolving online commerce sector, social media companies must now help navigate the serious threats posed by their platforms and help lead the development and enforcement of clear industry safeguards. Change won’t happen overnight, and these issues will require ongoing examination, collaboration and vigilance to effectively turn the tide.
But with midterm elections just months away, the tide is rising quickly, and the time to act is now.