Social Networks and Politics: Maligned Incentives

Siva Vaidhyanathan published a must-read op-ed in the New York Times this weekend provocatively titled: Facebook Wins, Democracy Loses. The article is one of many that has openly criticized Facebook’s role in distributing nakedly propagandistic political advertisements. The article opens:

On Wednesday, Facebook revealed that hundreds of Russia-based accounts had run anti-Hillary Clinton ads precisely aimed at Facebook users whose demographic profiles implied a vulnerability to political propaganda. It will take time to prove whether the account owners had any relationship with the Russian government, but one thing is clear: Facebook has contributed to, and profited from, the erosion of democratic norms in the United States and elsewhere.

Facebook is in an odd position because its business model hinges on providing high quality, responsive data to advertisers. Running Facebook ads are cheap and effective, and we shouldn’t begrudge them for doing this well. (Although, as Tristan Harris has pointed out, we should be highly suspicious of the manipulative tactics social networks employ to keep users on their platform) As Vaidhyanathan argues, and many others in the tech industry have seconded, political ads require transparency and running secret political ads through FB may be undermining our democracy.

The larger takeaway here is that Facebook has struggled mightily when it comes to politics. Not only is fake news a real problem plaguing the platform, but as anyone who uses FB knows, most people’s feeds have become highly unproductive echo-chambers with people ranting and sniping at each other.  Simply put, Facebook is not a great platform for politics-- and it shouldn’t have to be.

Building a single, monolithic platform that will improve our politics is probably impossible. However, at the BurgQuarters we realized that a localized platform that conforms to your community is something we both need and can actually build. As we never tire of saying, politics works from the bottom up, not top down. Our startup, The Burg, can finally give our physical communities the connectivity of online communities. The app we are building will transform the way people engage with their communities, beginning in Los Angeles. The App Store and Google Play Store don’t know what’s coming.