The illusion of freedom in the networks: a story of how the hate empires of Twitter and Facebook crumble

Social networks, polarization and democracy are the pieces of a puzzle that fit according to a key element: the will of the actors that move them. But when someone says that networks “polarize”, what is he referring to? sociologist Damon Centolaa professor at the University of Pennsylvania, developed together with a team of researchers a social experiment where he divided into two groups democrats and republicans. The intention was to discover if grouping these people in echo chambers – spaces where opinions are only shared to reaffirm the group’s bias – would cause these individuals to increase their animosity towards the opposing group. That is, it will increase the polarization. However, and to the surprise of the researchers, the result was the opposite. Internet users acquired more moderate and reciprocal positions with the other group.

The work seemed to have dealt a blow to the traditional prejudice that social networks are harmful and promote hatred until Centola realized that the experiment was not in line with reality. The echo chambers they created were “egalitarian”, as individuals exchanged their opinions with each other without any figure of influence above them. But networks are not really egalitarian, but centralized, since an artificial minority, followed by thousands or millions of users, can exert a “disproportionate” influence on the group. In conclusion, networks by themselves do not polarize or pose a risk to democracy. But they do polarize the leaders who benefit from the centralizing algorithm of the platforms that prioritise, as discussed below, content based on controversy and hate.

Twitter and Facebook are the great companies par excellence that are surrounded by scandals related to the lack of control of hate campaigns and massive publications accompanied by false news. The international extreme right has been able to find in these platforms a direct speaker to promote hoaxes and encourage coordinated attacks against democracies. The most exemplary case was when donald trump did not recognize the election results of November 2020 and insinuated that there had been a “fraud” in the elections. Just two months later, supporters of the former president violently stormed the Capitol.

The polarization of networks is “a polarization of elites”, explains researcher Sandra González-Bailón

Therefore, when one asks if social networks are democratizing tools, perhaps one is facing a mirage. “I am amazed that someone thinks that the internet is a democracy; the internet has never been a democracy, and now less so. It is a very clear dictatorship, starting with the access door, such as search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing…) , because they don’t offer the best or the most truthful results, just the ones we like”, he points out to Public the technologist Marcelino Madrigal. Social networks are far from being “the town square” – remember Paul Moralespredoctoral researcher at the UNED–, but they are a business, whose economic model is the sale of personal data thanks to the fact that users “deliver their privacy”, and the “economy of attention: the greater participation in the network, the greater profitability for the company.

Networks are a business, but why polarize? It is natural? Or is there really a model based on creating animosity between some groups and others? As Centola demonstrated, users by themselves are not polarized by interacting on a network even if they are with like-minded individuals. The polarization that is really perceived in social networks is a “polarization of elites”. This explains it Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “Social networks have facilitated the polarization of elites and have given a lot of voice to a minority that is very involved politically,” explains the researcher. The reason behind this polarization is not innocent. González-Bailón speaks of two phenomena: “The first is what we know as pluralistic ignorance, where considering that what a minority says is representative of public opinion and this is not true, is an illusion. The second phenomenon is related to the algorithmic amplification process. Twitter and Facebook use information curation algorithmswhich are the ones that determine which messages you will find of greater interest”.

The algorithm and the business

Still, why is the algorithm able to prioritize the content that it can publish, for example, the extreme right? The three experts have it clear. Algorithms have a weakness for controversial content, because it generates retention; that is, that the user spends time consuming the social network. And they also generate “movement”: likesretweets, comments… Madrigal is blunt in this regard: “These companies are interested in us spending time to place advertising. Well, suddenly, these gentlemen realized that the feeling of hate causes users to stay glued to the screen” . To this we must add a new element: anonymity. “The possibility of having anonymous accounts and the fact of being able to immerse yourself in echo chambers make up a user experience that encourages polarization,” adds Moral.

In this climate, the empires of Facebook and Twitter are not going through their best moment. the tycoon Elon Musk has recognized that the platform suffers economic complications with millionaire losses. mark zuckerbergfor its part, had to undertake a change of image due to the company’s bad reputation and its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In addition, the company will lay off 13% of its workforce. In a statement, the CEO noted that the firm cannot maintain the financial results it generated during the pandemic. The two are making moves to keep users, who, however, are increasingly betting on other platforms. The clearest: TikTok.

TikTok grows, but it is not exempt from generating risks

The Chinese social network has been the brand that has experienced “the fastest increase in the world”, according to the British consultancy Brand Finance, which points out that the increase has been 215% in 2022 and goes from having a value of 8,700 million to 59,000 million dollars. A figure that can be compared with other firms in the following graph.

At first glance, TikTok is a social network intended primarily for entertainment. But both González-Bailón and Madrigal stress that this network is no stranger to the same risks that both Twitter and Facebook generate. The technologist points out that in this network there is also a “strong ideological content”, which can be more dangerous because it is sold more subtly. And he states that “we must not forget that its growth is not spontaneous, that the Chinese government is behind it and there is a huge investment in advertising in this application”. The professor at the Annenberg School for Communication indicates that in this case also predominates centralized content, since it is still a minority that generates the publications with the most impact, beyond the fact that the algorithm allows users with few followers to make a specific publication go viral. Moral adds that this application attracts a sector of the population that is entering the voting ageso politicians and companies are entering there to “sneak content in a much finer and more indirect way.”

Thousands of users migrate from Twitter to Mastodon, the new network that competes with Musk

Meanwhile, Twitter has emerged a possible competitor after the purchase of Musk: Mastodon. Thousands of users have migrated from the blue bird application to this new network that seeks to avoid Twitter’s own environment of toxicity. Mastodon is not a centralized network, rather it is a federation of servers that are interconnected and operate independently. What does this mean? Internet users can be part of specific and limited communities in which they can interact. The big difference is that the rules of these spaces are decided by the users themselves.

Solutions to uncertainty and a “utopian” proposal

However, the network ecosystem is still dominated by algorithms that are not very democratic, as Madrigal explains. The three researchers propose different ideas and conclude that there are no magic solutions. Madrigal defends self-regulation, yes, in an environment where “the rules are clear and there is greater transparency”. At this point, he maintains that the large companies that own social networks configure the space according to the conception of freedom of expression in the United States, enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. “The only limit here is physical violence, but there is freedom for everything else,” he argues. But they do not adapt to the European conception of freedom, where “there are certain messages that promote hatred that cannot be disclosed”, and companies “must establish internal rules to avoid it”.

“I don’t trust our ability to self-regulate,” says González-Bailón

For its part, Gonzalez-Bailon relies less on self-regulation. “I don’t trust our ability to self-regulate,” she jokes. And he puts two approaches on the table. The first is to address these risks through “empirical evidence” to help design “interventions that are effective.” “Platforms should provide data to researchers so they can draw independent conclusions,” she proposes. The second point is to rethink how the designs of these platforms affect human behavior. The researcher points out how ads that make users think twice before sharing content in a “visceral” way can be effective for them to act in a more “deliberate” way. Still, she acknowledges that the tension is “between what’s good for society and what’s good for business.”

The proposal, according to Moral, “more utopian” but for which he is constantly betting is “digital literacy and creating awareness with the use of networks”. The researcher defends that educating in the use of social networks and how to manage on the Internet is the fundamental step that public authorities must take into account so that citizens have the necessary tools to avoid the risks that, today, still exist. these platforms entail.

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The illusion of freedom in the networks: a story of how the hate empires of Twitter and Facebook crumble