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Civil Discourse in the Social Media Age

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Daniel Stokey, MBA Candidate 2016-17 at the Saïd Business School, gives his perspective on the  Skoll World Forum session “Civil Discourse in the Social Media Age”.

Panel moderator Manoush Zomorodi, Host and Managing Editor of WNYC Radio, began the session by asking the audience, roughly 100 people in Nelson Mandela Lecture Theatre, how many get their news from social media. I turn to see the vast majority of hands shoot up, well over 62%, the 2016 statistic about Americans used in the blurb introducing this session. Below are my takeaways from the lively discussion that followed, introducing the challenges we face in an increasingly polarized world where social media dominates the spread of information.

The Power of Social Media

Eli Pariser, Co-founder of Upworthy, put the issue in perspective, asserting that Facebook, as the world’s largest forum for media distribution, is in fact the biggest media company in our planet’s history. However, Facebook does not claim to be a media company, and is completely opaque to research. This is a problem, as the power and influence that Facebook wields has a profound impact on our society. Eli goes on to explain that Facebook is a system that optimizes for engagement, through algorithms that seek to maximize time spent. However, Facebook’s agnostic approach to how users spend time almost exclusively shows content that confirms what they already believe.

The other challenge with social media is the potential for spread of misinformation. Phil Howard, Professor of Sociology, Information, and International Affairs at the Oxford Internet Institute, shares results from their recent study showing that 50% of websites shared by users in Michigan prior to the US election was “junk news,” a 1-1 ratio of professional journalism to unverified sources. He also shared findings that Bots (automated internet traffic and social media accounts) played a significant role in the US election, making Trump seem more popular than in reality early on, and driving the proliferation of negative content about candidate Hillary Clinton in the weeks leading up to the election.

The Responsibility of Citizens

Matthew Segal, Founder and Editor in Chief at ATTN:, believes that trying to resist social media, like resisting automation, is futile. In addition, he argued strongly throughout the session that the responsibility to stop the spread of fake news ultimately lies with citizens. The burden is on all of us to investigate the credibility of our news sources, and not necessarily on a single entity like Facebook to stop the spread of fake news. Ultimately, he asserted that an undue amount of blame has been placed on Facebook for the Trump victory, and not enough on a genuine change in electorate views. While credible news sources need to adapt their product to social media platforms and do their best to inform the public, much of the burden lies with us to do our own fact checking.

Right vs. Left

A third unavoidable issue that arose during this session was the dichotomy of right vs. left. Eli Pariser shared results from a study conducted through web-browser plugins, which measured how often Americans visit fact checking sites versus sites deemed to be “fake news.” Findings showed that Americans on the right of the political spectrum spent more time consuming fake news. Those on the left are least exposed to fake news, and most likely to visit fact checking sites. This gap in news consumption practices poses a real challenge. However, there is an underlying assumption here that we, all of the people in this session know the facts, and that those on the left of the political spectrum have the truth on their side. The danger here is in minimizing or ridiculing those with differing political views. One disturbing trend in America today was raised by an audience question from Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO of New America. More and more, she argues, we tend to demonize people on the other side of the political spectrum. Not only are they different or wrong, they are evil.

Half of the Conversation

As we sit in perhaps the most concentrated echo chamber on earth, at the University of Oxford among CEOs, celebrities, and academics, it feels somewhat disingenuous to discuss ways to “fix” this problem. A quick glance this morning at the front pages of ATTN: and Upworthy reveals exactly what I would expect – negative stories about Ivanka Trump, positive stories about Michelle Obama, the plight of refugees, and articles on gay rights and interracial harmony. Let me be clear, I am the target market for both media outlets, and agree with literally all of these sentiments. However, it doesn’t strike me as an objective panel discussing this issue. The “civil discourse” that played out on stage took place among three panelists and a moderator that clearly all lean heavily to the left of the political spectrum. Yet as we have learned in the past year, a large percentage of the US and UK population are not onboard with this narrative. What would a laid-off auto worker in a closed GM plant in Morraine, Ohio have to say on this topic?

Near the end of the session, Eli Pariser shared his belief that one of the most powerful ways to break down implicit bias is to spend time in another person’s world, and to genuinely try to understand their perspective. This is the best way to build empathy, yet unfortunately it is so often missing from our lives. This is true not just in the context of social media, but in our education systems, workplaces, and conferences.

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