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 Working Together is the Only Way 

The ease with which information is disseminated in the Internet age has led to incredible advances in technology but has also impaired the public’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction, and to sort trustworthy news sources from unreliable ones. Through the rise of social media, newspapers, journals, and other traditional publications must now compete with anonymous Internet users as the arbiters of truth. The national discussion on current events is no longer primarily shaped by journalists and analysts; anyone with an Internet connection and an enabled device can add their voice to the conversation and, depending on the size of their audience, move the needle in their preferred ideological direction.[1] The splintering of society’s information channels allows for individually tailored newsfeeds that prioritize stories that reinforce deeply-held beliefs while discounting ones that are inconvenient to personal beliefs.

The personalization of newsfeeds and the resulting echo-chamber effect may be a root cause of the crisis of polarization that has taken hold in recent decades. In 1978, public opinion surveys showed that the typical American viewed their own political party 27 points higher in favorability than the other major party; by 2016 that number had ballooned to 45.9 points.[2] Partisan disapproval extends to major news organizations as well. A 2020 Pew study on trust in media showed that 50% or more of Democrats trust organizations like CNN, NBC News, ABC News and CBS News.[3] Trust among Republicans for those organizations was 33% or lower, while Fox News garnered a 65% trust rating.[4] This is a fundamental issue for America because it shows the country has dueling versions of reality. 

 Polarization is a complex phenomenon, but we believe the current economic models of social media companies are key drivers. Divisive politics were obviously a fact of life before the emergence of Twitter and Facebook, but these new mediums clearly exacerbate the issue. While users can tailor their experiences on these platforms to some degree, toxic and misleading content has been shown to generate the most engagement and is thus regularly prioritized by algorithms over less heated posts.[5] To trust the tech giants to self-direct away from algorithms that prioritize engagement over all else is to trust in their ability to defy gravity; as some of the largest corporations in history, tech giants are unlikely to enact a policy not aligned with maximizing shareholder returns. The algorithms employed by Big Tech are not innocuous trade secrets like the Coca-Cola formula or the Big Mac secret sauce recipe, but disturbingly powerful tools that directly impact our country’s political and cultural wellbeing.

The reach and responsibility companies like Meta and Google wield necessarily brings them under public scrutiny. Congress should press forward in determining the impact of social media algorithms on political discourse. The bipartisan Platform Accountability and Transparency Act introduced by Democrat Senators Chris Coons and Amy Klobuchar and Republican Senator Rob Portman would compel social media companies to share important internal data and permit vetting by third-party experts.[6] We believe enacting the bill is a good first step in combatting polarization; it will enable policymakers to drill down to the root causes of how and why false and toxic information is such a central part of the social media experience.

 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/mar/19/tiktok-ukraine-russia-war-disinformation

[2] https://www.brown.edu/news/2020-01-21/polarization

[3] https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/2020/01/24/u-s-media-polarization-and-the-2020-election-a-nation-divided/

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-algorithm-change-zuckerberg-11631654215?mod=article_inline

[6] https://www.coons.senate.gov/news/press-releases/coons-portman-klobuchar-announce-legislation-to-ensure-transparency-at-social-media-platforms