(Philip N. Howard is a professor of sociology, information and
international affairs at Oxford University. He is the author,
most recently, of "Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May
Set Us Free or Lock Us Up.")
By Philip N. Howard
Dec 7 Social media companies are taking heat for
influencing the outcomes of the U.S. presidential election and
Brexit referendum by allowing fake news, misinformation
campaigns and hate speech to spread.
But Facebook and Twitter's real sin was an act of omission:
they failed to contribute to the data that democracy needs to
thrive. While sitting on huge troves of information about public
opinion and voter intent, social media firms watched as U.S. and
UK pollsters, journalists, politicians and civil society groups
made bad projections and poor decisions with the wrong
The data these companies collect, for example, could have
told us in real-time whether fake news was having an impact on
voters. Information garnered from social media platforms could
have boosted voter turnout as citizens realized the race was
closer than the polls showed - and that their votes really would
matter. Instead, these companies let the United States and UK
tumble into a democratic deficit, with political institutions
starved of quality data on public opinion.
Legally, social media companies aren't obligated to share
data in the public interest. And what they can share is always
shaped by users' privacy settings, country-specific rules about
selling personal information, and the particular deals companies
like Facebook and Twitter make with third party businesses. But
they are now the primary platforms for political conversation.
As such, they should act in ways that support democratic
practices, especially around sensitive political moments like
Facebook and Twitter have the ability to reach, and target,
millions of voters. From the minute you sign up on one of these
platforms, the companies use data about your behavior,
interests, family and friends to recommend news and new social
connections. And they sell this data to other companies for even
deeper analysis on what you might buy and what you think about
important social issues.
By examining data about the connections you make and content
you share, social media companies can make powerful inferences
about whether you are likely to vote, how you are likely to
vote, and what kinds of news or advertisements might encourage
or discourage you to engage as a citizen.
Social media firms regularly study the news consumption
habits of users, producing fine-grained analysis of the causes
and consequences of political polarization on its platform. To
that end, only Facebook and Twitter know how pervasive
fabricated news stories and misinformation campaigns have become
during referendums and elections. They know who clicked on what
links, how much time each user spent reading an "article," and
where the user was physically located.
If the companies merged user data with other datasets - say,
from credit card records or voter registration files - they may
even know the user's voting history and which political groups
the user has donated to. These companies know enough about voter
attitudes to serve up liberal news to liberals and conservative
news to conservatives, or fake news to undecided voters.
During the recent U.S. presidential election, there was a
worrying amount of false information on both Facebook and
Twitter, and research suggests that many users can't distinguish
between real and fabricated news. My own research on this
"computational propaganda" shows that Facebook and Twitter can
be easily used to poison political conversations. Trump
campaigners were particularly good at using bots - basic
software programs with communication skills - to propagate lies.
Bogus news sites were started just to make money for their
founders, but undoubtedly influenced some voters' view when
manipulated images and false reports went viral.
Several major U.S. tech companies have since announced steps
to reign in fabricated news. In response to criticism about the
spread of misinformation on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg described
in a post some of the projects the company already has underway,
including making it easier for users to report fake news.
Facebook has also updated its advertising policies to spell out
that its ban on deceptive and misleading content applies to this
type of content. Google has said it is working to prevent
websites that spread bogus news from using its advertising
platform. But more can be done.
While social media use has been on the rise, our systems for
measuring public opinion have been breaking down. Telephone- and
internet-based surveys are increasingly inaccurate. With so many
people on mobile phones, consuming political content that comes
to them through friends, family and Facebook, traditional
polling companies no longer get a full picture of what the
public knows and wants.
For modern democracies to work, three kinds of polling
systems need to be up and running. First, nationwide exit polls,
which identify mistakes in how elections are run, helping to
confirm or refute claims of fraud. For several decades exit
polling was coordinated by major news outlets, but the coalition
broke down in the United States in 2002 and 2005 in the UK.
Today, exit polls are run haphazardly, and are more about
predicting winners and outcomes than systematically checking the
Second, democracies need a regular supply of public policy
polls so that journalists, public policy makers, civic groups
and elected officials can understand public opinion before and
after voting day.
Third, democracies need "deliberative polls" that put
complex policy questions to representative groups of voters who
are given time to evaluate the possible solutions. These kinds
of polls engage citizens about public policy options through
extended conversations with experts and each other. They lead to
more informed decision-making.
Companies like Facebook and Twitter manage the platforms
over which most citizens in advanced democracies now talk about
politics, and they could be the critical new platforms for these
polling systems. They could never completely replace existing
techniques for measuring public opinion. But our existing
polling systems are weakening, and social media platforms have
an obvious role to play.
With the data at their disposal and the platforms they
maintain, social media companies could raise standards for
civility by refusing to accept ad revenue for placing fake news.
They could let others audit and understand the algorithms that
determine who sees what on a platform. Just as important, they
could be the platforms for doing better opinion, exit and
This year, Facebook and Twitter watched as ways of measuring
public opinion collapsed. Allowing fake news and computational
propaganda to target specific voters is an act against
democratic values. But withholding data about public opinion is
the major crime against democracy.
(Philip N. Howard)