Does Facebook Imperil Democracy?

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On most days, the World Health Organization’s historic approval of the world’s first malaria vaccine would lead the news. This is a major development that could save the lives of tens of thousands of children in Africa each year. Closer to home for me, I would likely focus on the school shooting in a Dallas suburb that stemmed from a fight and wounded several students.

Facebook remains the headline news this morning. Tuesday’s “mega outage” triggered by a software bug is only one part of the story. A former employee told Congress this week that the company’s leaders “have put their astronomical profits before people.” (You can watch her opening statement here.) She previously leaked documents to the Wall Street Journal, which then reported that the company “knows, in acute detail, that its platforms are riddled with flaws that cause harm, often in ways only the company fully understands.”

These documents reportedly show how Facebook ignores Instagram’s adverse impact on teens and the spread of misinformation on its platform. In addition, it reportedly makes alterations to its algorithmic feed that boosts user engagement while simultaneously increasing hostility and discontent.

Company founder Mark Zuckerberg responded yesterday, stating that the employee’s comments are “just not true” and defending his company’s strategies to limit harmful content. The company is also slowing new products while it addresses concerns raised by congressional hearings and media reports.

WHAT HAPPENED TO OBJECTIVE NEWS?

Whatever the truth of these allegations, Facebook is by no means the only platform contributing to the media environment of our day.

As I have written in the past, there was a day when objectivity was the prized commodity in news reporting. Most people subscribed to only one newspaper and watched thirty minutes or an hour of televised news per day, expecting the news to be reported fairly and without bias.

Then, nearly everything changed:

The postmodern revolution that began in the 1960s redefined truth as “your” truth and “my” truth.

The sexual revolution began redefining morality with regard to extramarital sex, gender orientation and sexual identity, prostitution, and pornography as “whatever doesn’t harm someone else.”

The legalization of abortion in 1973 raised the stakes enormously regarding political, legislative, and judicial outcomes.

The internet broke the established media business by delivering news 24/7/365 by and to anyone with a cell phone.

Digital technology enabled media companies to profile their customers more precisely than ever, enabling them (and their advertisers) to target specific demographics while excluding others.

Consumers are more able than ever before to curate their news so that they hear only from sources with which they agree. Reporters are likewise affected by the relativism of our culture; many report the news through their personal agendas.

As a result, objective news reports and reporters are rarer than ever. This is a dangerous and escalating threat to our divided and divisive democracy.

THREE FACTORS IN JEOPARDY

A healthy democracy requires three factors related to today’s discussion:

  1. Trust in the media to fact-check candidates and report essential news to voters
  2. Trust in the voting process
  3. Trust in the winners even if our candidates lose

As we have seen, the first is more tenuous than ever before in American history. So are the second and third.

A candidate for governor in Virginia is calling for an audit of the state’s voting machines “to make sure that people trust” them. A new study reported that about 35 percent of Americans believe President Biden’s victory was illegitimate. Technology makes it easier for bad actors inside and outside our country to attack the integrity of our elections. Those who do not trust the voting process are less likely to participate and less likely to support the eventual winners.

For this and other reasons, trust in the winners is waning in demonstrable ways. We’re seeing stories of disillusioned electorates in Iraq, allegations of corruption against leaders in Lebanon and Jordan, and reports that “the global elite shield riches from taxes, criminal probes, and public accountability.”

America’s leaders are by no means immune. A Forbes article reports that eleven of the twelve senators on the committee hearing allegations against Facebook received a total of $190,000 from the company’s political action committee. An opinion piece in the New York Times (not a conservative outlet) details moral issues regarding President Biden under the headline, “An Ethically Challenged Presidency.”

The president traveled this week to Michigan (where he won in 2020) to promote his “Build Back Better” agenda but found an angry group of protesters waiting for him. As we noted yesterday, political leaders are facing escalating vitriol these days, much of it highly personal and caustic.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN’S WARNING

Tomorrow we’ll discuss practical ways Christians can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. For today, let’s close with a call to intercede for our leaders and country (1 Timothy 2:1–4). No nation’s future is guaranteed. I believe God is calling Christians to “build up the wall and stand in the breach” for America with urgency, passion, and courageous commitment (cf. Ezekiel 22:30).

On September 17, 1787, delegates left the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. As they exited, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a group of citizens what kind of government the convention had created.

He answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

For more from the Denison Forum, please visit www.denisonforum.org.

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