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Is Facebook changing democracy?

Facebook is changing its policies on political advertising, which has consequences for campaigners, and may, on a wider scale, impact democracy itself and stop non-incumbent campaigns from being successful. 

Global events since 2016 have increased the pressure on social media giants and technology companies to address fake news and misinformation and monitor their platforms more closely. Facebook is criticised from all sides of the political debate over the volume of political misinformation it distributes. Questions also arise as to its influence on domestic democracy – overseas voters are often being unfairly penalized and unable to receive party information from the countries they vote in. 

Recent political events in the US in particular, have made American-owned social media companies increasingly wary of political advertising, although it remains a major income stream for these technology and media firms. Across the world, Facebook currently caps the amount of political news that users are exposed to. On average, only 6% of a user’s newsfeed is ‘political’ news. Facebook has not published how it defines ‘political’ in deciding what news is permitted. Looking at the wonderful Facebook ad library, which is a must for anyone that wants to be informed about their opposition, it is clear there is an increasingly fading grey line as to what is a cause issue and what is political. 

Its proposed policy changes (which have already been introduced in the USA, Canada, Brazil and Indonesia) further reduce the permitted percentage of ‘political’ content in a newsfeed. Facebook also announced that it would stop providing recommendations to its users to join political or civic groups. We should expect these policies to be adopted globally in the near future. 

The political campaigning space is changing worldwide. While we may view the minimisation of fake news as a positive step for democracy, the impact of regulating news feeds is different in different parts of the world. Reducing political advertising means that in some places, democracies will be less robust and citizens will be unable to obtain important information. Facebook is a vital source of news across the developing and developed world and, in many places, Facebook is more neutral than any other sources that citizens may be exposed to.

While Facebook may be attempting to minimise conspiracy theories such as Q-anon, positive change has been catalysed by social media. Take the Arab Spring as an example, dubbed the ‘BlackBerry Revolution’. Social media introduced the speed, creativity and interactivity that traditional mobilisation techniques were lacking in the Arab Spring, enabling domestic and international activists to follow events live, join social-networking groups and engage in protest and discussions. Protesters in the Arab Spring became ‘citizen journalists’ with the help of social media, and had the ability to self publish opinions, stories and images. 

Facebook’s policy changes are part of a gradual effort to align it closer to incumbent governments and less politically contentious. In many ways, Facebook is wary of government regulation. David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson have all called for a global coalition of governments to monitor large social media and technology firms such as Google and Facebook. Facebook’s reaction appears to involve a ban on advertising, rather than spending the resources to check the political posts of users and monitor its own platform. If Facebook’s policies result in a corporate unwillingness to allow users to challenge governments, the platform risks becoming aligned too closely with government communications.

In 2019, Twitter banned all political advertising. Are we heading towards a ‘politics free’ social media landscape? Despite the best efforts of these media companies, social media is highly political and will remain so, as people are, by nature, political. Social media is critical for campaigning in contemporary society. The most agile grassroots campaigns slip through the political filters of Facebook. Therefore, in reality, will there be any real change to outcomes? Time will tell, and we are watching Mr Clegg with interest!

Ben Peart is a Research and Communications Assistant at College Green Group.