Facebook is shaping public discourse. We need to understand how

By
Alex Abdo
September 15, 2018

At a hearing last week in Washington, senators and executives from Facebook and Twitter wrestled with the existential question of our time: how do we prevent Silicon Valley’s signature creation – social media – from tearing the country apart? Few answers emerged, but several senators expressed an obvious truth: the public urgently needs to better understand how these platforms are shaping public discourse.

Fortunately, there is one vital step that Facebook and Twitter could take today to improve public understanding: lifting the restrictions that impede digital journalism and research focused on the platforms.

Social media platforms are transforming public discourse in ways we do not understand. Take Facebook, for example. Two billion people around the world and 200 million in the United States use Facebook to get their news, debate policy, join political movements and connect with friends and family. The platform has become the substrate of our social interactions, the means by which human relationships are formed and maintained. Facebook’s platform disseminates our messages, but it also determines whether their signals will be amplified, suppressed or distorted. Facebook is not just a carrier of social media, but an entirely new social medium.

We need to understand how this new social medium works – how Facebook influences the relationships between its users and distorts the flow of the information among them.

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