Alexis Madrigal’s article, “What Facebook Did to American Democracy,” in the The Atlantic is a must read for anyone interested in preserving our democracy. The survival of democratic society depends on a well-informed electorate, as John Dewey so aptly pointed out in his discussion of the purpose of education in the early years of the 20th century. As an educator in a progressive school, I take this responsibility—that of preparing future citizens—very seriously. Recently, I have begun to understand much more deeply what John Dewey was saying and look for ways to help our students understand the rights and responsibilities of citizenship—which include being aware of the role and impact of media in our lives. Madrigal’s article caught my eye and got me to thinking further about this topic in relation to social media.
Since the beginning of our democracy, and certainly in John Dewey’s time, citizens have sought information about the candidates and issues in an election. Public debates, lectures, informal in-person conversations, pamphlets, books, and newspaper articles were used for enlightening people and were the vehicles for civil discourse. Over time, with the addition of radio and television, more people had direct access to the opinions of candidates. This access was readily available, the source was usually clear, and it was generally possible to have a good sense of the veracity of the news. Different channels were known for various biases, but the volume was manageable to make comparisons and question ideas. The reader, listener, or viewer was also making a conscious choice to engage.
With social media’s exponential and rapid growth—and the use of news feeds, which tailor what we see based on our likes and viewing habits—we find ourselves in a world in which it is far more difficult to discern the source or the truth of the news. We’re not even actively choosing what we see in our news feeds. In fact, the choices are basically invisible and are presented in such a way that we do not realize that a machine’s algorithm is helping shape our thinking. The speed and sheer volume of growth of “engagements” with social media cause it to be an extremely powerful thought-shaper or at least a thought-reinforcer. A conservative view point will lead to more conservative choices; a liberal view point will lead to more liberal choices. Our perspectives are narrowed without us realizing it. As well, fake news, which is much easier to create and disseminate, can do damage so much more rapidly than an old-fashioned paper newspaper could because of how quickly it can spread to millions with very little effort.
Alexis Madrigal unpacks this new reality caused by social media. He helps us see how it threatens the development of independent thought, so essential to a democracy, through an analysis of the ways that Facebook influenced the outcome of the 2012 and 2016 elections.
I believe it is more important than ever for us as educators and parents to help students develop the critical thinking skills and knowledge they must have to assess the various impacts—both positive and negative—of social media. As citizens, and future voters, they will need to be able to evaluate the source of their news; think independently about what they read, see, and hear; and step outside of their own point of view to consider multiple perspectives. Let’s be sure that they know how and that we are modeling the kind of critical thinking and active engagement we would like to see in them.