Social media shine a light on themselves

Russia meddling in US politics has forced social media giants to better parse the truth and civility on their platforms. A divided citizenry should follow their example.

AP Photo
From left, Facebook's General Counsel Colin Stretch, Twitter's Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett, and Google's Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker, are sworn in Nov. 1 for a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian election activity.

After a grilling by Congress for allowing Russia to meddle in the 2016 elections, the nation’s biggest social media providers are starting to make changes to their platforms. Twitter, for example, will ban official Russian news outlets while Facebook plans to do better fact-checking on its news feed and will reveal the sources of political ads.

In essence, the social media giants are taking more responsibility to help others discern the truth and to uphold civility. Their past passivity toward the dissemination of “fake news” and attack ads had only undermined the very democracy that preserves the freedoms of an open society, including the internet.

During the presidential campaign, Google says it allowed 1,108 Russian-linked videos to run on its YouTube site. Facebook admitted that 126 million users may have seen Russian disinformation on its site. The magnitude of these numbers shows how much social media, like books, TV, and radio, can accelerate the flow of information, whether it be true or false.

These private companies should not be alone in taking corrective steps against those whose sole aim is to pit Americans against each other and to raise fears, as Russian internet trolls tried to do. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center finds Americans are more divided than at any time since 1994 in their political values and their views toward those of the opposing party. On a range of issues, the partisan gap between Republicans and Democrats has doubled, as has each side’s negative views of the other.

Bridging this divide will require citizens to do what Twitter, Google, and Facebook are now attempting to do: realize their ability to perceive the truth and practice the virtues of civil discourse. While debate is necessary in a democratic society, and different sides will cite different facts in an argument, there remains a shared desire for wisdom to rise to the surface. That should not be lost.

Just as the big information providers are being held accountable for what passes across their platforms, individuals can also take responsibility for what enters their thoughts or guides their actions. Simply blaming others for their being duped is to deny the role of individual conscience. Without discerning thinkers, a democracy cannot hold.

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