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The Year Ahead 2018

Making Social Media Safe for Democracy

Social media firms may not be creating the continuing torrent of junk news seen in 2017, but they provide the platforms that have allowed “computational propaganda” to become one of the most powerful tools currently being used to undermine democracy. If democracy is to survive, today’s social media giants will have to redesign themselves.

OXFORD – In the run-up to multiple votes around the world in 2016, including the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote and the United States presidential election, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter systematically served large numbers of voters poor-quality information – indeed, often outright lies – about politics and public policy. Though those companies have been widely criticized, the junk news – sensational stories, conspiracy theories, and other disinformation – flowed on through 2017.

While a growing number of country-specific fact-checking initiatives and some interesting new apps for evaluating junk news have emerged, system-wide, technical solutions do not seem to be on offer from the platforms. So how should we make social media safe for democratic norms?

We know that social media firms are serving up vast amounts of highly polarizing content to citizens during referenda, elections, and military crises around the world. During the 2016 US presidential election, fake news stories were shared on social media more widely than professionally produced ones, and the distribution of junk news hit its highest point the day before the election.

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