Fake news, a term absent from the political vernacular until Donald Trump ran for president, is now ubiquitous. The term defines a moment, ignited by Trump and his supporters, of attacking professional journalism, while using social media to spread misinformation and spur entire movements with demagogic impulses. Steve Bannon and the Trump campaign notably purchased Facebook ads with the text “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators” aimed at depressing black turnout in the 2016 election. Facebook also has faced congressional scrutiny after revelations that the company posted ads funded by the Russians to delegitimize Clinton’s candidacy.
The spread of inaccurate, politically charged information is hardly a new phenomenon, of course. But while social scientists and pundits alike have long bemoaned the way an increasingly polarized media has made it easier for people to be fed information that neatly fits their ideological bents, today those divisions have become even more calcified. Social media has created and amplified echo chambers so that every piece of information serves to confirm our existing opinions, manifesting in deep political divisions that are more entrenched than at any other point in recent memory. Echo chambers have, in turn, sharpened ideological and partisan differences, increasing intolerance and making people prone to believing falsehoods. Today’s fake news problem—the actual kind, mostly emanating from right-wing conspiracy-minded outlets like Infowars—is a result of that.
In #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Cass R. Sunstein argues that while social media has exacerbated the dangerous (and natural) tendency for people to create echo chambers and ensconce themselves within them, certain incentives might get people to consume more diverse types of information. This sort of exposure to conflicting opinions could help mold a more tolerant society and protect against the extremism coursing through American politics.
It comes as no surprise that Sunstein, a Harvard law professor who also coauthored the popular behavioral economics book Nudge, thinks that the right structures can “nudge” people into choosing to consume information in a way that breaks them out of their echo chambers. Sunstein calls this “choice architecture”: structured options that can create opportunities for people to improve the way they make decisions. Sunstein, a prolific author on the subject, has proposed this model of policy design for other areas of policymaking, for example, having Americans opt out of registering as an organ donor, rather than actively signing up for it.
In the context of social media, choice architecture comes in the form of “orchestrated chance encounters” and “unchosen experiences”—an attempt to replicate the types of encounters people ideally experienced in the pre-social media world.
Sunstein wants policymakers to create online tools that mimic the chance encounters that he believes happen in real life to expose people to opposing viewpoints. He wants the digital equivalent of walking down the street and bumping into a neighbor, or attending a community council meeting where residents discuss and debate plans for a new playground. Yet, it’s hard to say to what extent these chance encounters really happen, as like-minded Americans increasingly tend to cluster together. These kinds of interactions foster deliberative democracy, a process through which people with divergent views speak and listen to one another—and, as consequence of that, tend to reach a compromise. For Sunstein, democratic freedom “requires certain background conditions, enabling people to expand their own horizons and to learn what is true. It entails not merely satisfaction of whatever preferences and values people happen to have but also circumstances that are conducive to the free formation of preferences and values.” That is, chance encounters. But these interactions have become increasingly rare, making intervention, in the form of serendipitous encounters, necessary.
In practice, designing “nudges” that create deliberative domains is no easy task. Ensuring that the online equivalent of parks and public square are open to everyone and are easily accessible is not the same as actually getting people there. But, the challenges posed by social media and echo chambers shouldn’t be a deterrent to thinking about how novel incentives, or even adaptations of existing structures and policies, can help mitigate corrosive echo chambers that serve to undermine American democracy.
If the responsibility to structure choice rests not with consumers, but instead with information providers, then perhaps market or government incentives could nudge information intermediaries to create robust online public forums. For example, social media platforms could play the “architect” role in nudging people towards seeking out a more complete picture of an issue, or by creating and fostering serendipitous encounters with information outside of one’s own partisan bubble. It’s conceivable that “opposing viewpoint” and “serendipity” buttons—which would basically randomly shuffle news articles—perhaps in the mold of Facebook’s popular “like” button, could help draw people’s attention to opinions they otherwise would not be exposed to. The Wall Street Journal’s interactive showing liberal and conservative Facebook feeds for issues like health care and guns shows the potential for social media to help us break out of ideological silos. There’s also a browser plug-in called “Escape Your Bubble” that inserts posts in your Facebook feed to challenge your political conventions. And since bubbles are not just products of people’s choices but also social media algorithms, it is possible that changing the algorithms that determine the information presented to users would change behavior, at least to some extent.
#Republic also pushes for more transparency in how social media companies wield their outsized power in how American consume information. Increased transparency from the tech behemoths in Silicon Valley—however elusive that may be—could give consumers the ability to learn about, and more closely monitor these companies and the algorithms that power them. Some companies already publish transparency reports like government requests for information or user requests for content removal and their responses to those requests. The proliferation of disclosure practices could lead to the development of badly-needed mechanisms to help impede the dissemination of fake news.
Taxpayer subsidies for high quality, civic-minded online platforms could also provide the nudge that content creators need to diversify what they publish. Sunstein’s suggestion is to retool and expand the model of PBS—government subsidies that help maintain the network’s programming schedule—to encompass “high-quality efforts in non-profit, nongovernmental spaces on the internet” and fit new forms of communication. The challenge, of course, is in policymakers’ ability to make a convincing argument that what certain media and information companies need is more financial incentives to motivate them into serving the public interest. Sunstein argues that the government has not only a role, but also the right and “the power to regulate communications technology in order to promote goals associated with deliberative democracy.”
But, legislative proposals for increasing the diversity of ideological points of view aren’t without their own limitations. “Must-carry” policies, for example, which were originally designed to ensure that television broadcasters would promote education and attention to public issues, would never work online. The sheer amount of internet domains would not only make it impossible to regulate speech, but attempting to do so would also be unconstitutional.
Most of Sunstein’s suggestions have the potential to make “unchosen experiences” and “chance encounters” more feasible in today’s social media age. They don’t require a complete overhaul in behavior, nor do they expect consumers of information to self-regulate in a constant effort to seek opposing viewpoints. By exposing people to contrasting opinions and ideologies online, but without forcing them to actively seek them out, Sunstein argues that choice architecture could ensure that America’s heterogeneous, pluralist society doesn’t become too fragmented. And that’s what makes these suggestions so appealing.
But a button can only be effective if people actually want to click on it. And a website can only facilitate connections if people are willing to visit it and engage with other individuals. Sunstein has faced his share of criticism from those who don’t believe policymakers can and should nudge people into making any decisions in their own, or society’s, best interest. Indeed, it’s unclear who should or should not be empowered with how to structure incentives and exposures. Exposing people to more and different information is not a guarantee that their behavior and choice patterns will change. At the same time, designing specific policies that attempt to decide what, when, and how information should or shouldn’t be consumed by individuals is an easy path to infringing upon not only people’s free speech, but also their freedom to know what others have to say. Sunstein tries to take into account the limits of both individual behavior change and government power. The status quo, with Americans isolating themselves from political views they don’t agree with, is unhealthy, and—as this past election made all too clear—ultimately dangerous.
#Republic is a timely reminder that unfettered control over the news we choose to consume is appealing, but when it results in partisan silos and rampant fake news, it can also make a deliberative democracy difficult to achieve. A democratic communications system should protect and promote free speech, while at the same time avoiding the perpetuation of echo chambers. That’s a tough balance to strike, and one that we may never fully accomplish. But Sunstein has taken discussion of the role of tech in democracy one step further, and posed questions that we must address if our hope is to mend America’s torn social fabric.