Social media during a pandemic election year: closer to our ideals, farther from reality | Michigan Radio
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Social media during a pandemic election year: closer to our ideals, farther from reality

Sep 22, 2020

A new Netflix documentary has social media users rethinking the platforms they frequent. The Social Dilemma revealed some disturbing truths about tech companies and big data. In addition, the Federal Elections Commission recently published an op-ed for Wired magazine suggesting the integrity of the 2020 election is in the hands of Facebook and Twitter. With misinformation and disinformation running rampant on those platforms, the op-ed paints a bleak picture.

Mitigating misinformation

Cliff Lampe, professor of information at the University of Michigan School of Information says it doesn't have to be this way. He says there are options to make the internet a better place. Groups like the Election Integrity Roadmap for example have offered suggestions for social media companies to make their sites more accountable to users.

“They have a whole wide set of things, some of which are reasonable, some of which are unlikely,” Lampe said. “On the reasonable side, pointing to new tools that the platforms are doing like identifying misinformation, or showing alternative viewpoints to a post. Another is to show a history of different groups, and if they change names or if they’re connected to other groups. Less likely for the platforms are things like turning off the algorithms, which is a really powerful recommendation but very unlikely for the platforms.”

Lampe says there are other steps consumers can take when on social media platforms. He suggests taking stock of how the news you're reading makes you feel. “One of the things to do is self-reflection,” Lampe said. “One of the things I always note for myself is when I feel emotional about a story or about a piece of information, that’s usually someone trying to manipulate my emotions for their own ends. So I always check in, how am I feeling about a piece of information that I see and what’s the motivation of that person for sharing it.”

On oversight and regulations

One of the reasons misinformation can run rampant on platforms is because social media companies are largely unregulated. “Our biggest challenge is the First Amendment, and I don’t mean to say the First Amendment is a challenge, but it’s a core principle of American rights and something we should take very carefully and very seriously,” Lampe said. “When you’re talking about regulating social media you’re often talking about regulating the ability of people to speak freely and to share information. So we always need to balance that regulation of social media with those core essential First Amendment rights.”

Up until this point, most of the regulation has come from the companies themselves. While regulations are often seen by companies as burdensome, he says most social media platforms would welcome some type of regulation as a shared responsibility.

“A lot of the companies have been begging for regulation because they can’t necessarily manage this on their own and don’t want to be held responsible for managing it on their own,” Lampe said. “'At least make it so that we have cover if we want to do something. So if we do have to do something, you know, cover us so we’re not solely responsible for making these unpopular decisions.'”

It’s not all bad

While spending too much time on platforms like Facebook or Twitter, or watching a documentary like The Social Dilemma may make you want to throw your phone into Lake Michigan, Lampe says it’s not all bad.

“The bad things are flashy and showy and the good things are mundane and happen every day and happen so regularly that we don’t often notice them,” he said. “I think when we look at the good versus the bad in social media it’s easy to overlook the good. And people are fairly rational, they wouldn’t keep coming back to social media if it weren’t having some good effects for them. But the bad can be so flashy and such an event that that’s what we pay attention to.”

While it may seem impossible to leave social media, especially during the pandemic, Lampe says it’s important to remember that it’s not inextricable. You can take a break. 

“We do see a lot of people connecting through social media and getting a lot of social support through those channels,” Lampe said. “For me a lot of it depends on how you use social media. One of the most common findings in my field is passive consumption usually is associated with more negative effects, but active consumption, i.e. reaching out to friends, communicating, being a good person and talking to people in a civil way all can have more positive effects for people.”

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.