Facebook says social media not always healthy for democracy

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Facebook Inc. warned Monday it could offer no assurance that social media was on balance good for democracy, but the company said it was trying what it could to stop alleged meddling in elections by Russian Federation or anyone else.

In a new commentary, the social media giant acknowledges the possibility that social media can have negative ramifications for democracy.

Among other respected voices, Facebook is listening to Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School, who was invited to publish a guest blog post on Monday.

"Facebook was originally created to connect friends and family - and it has excelled at that", wrote Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook's product manager for civic engagement. "But as unprecedented numbers of people channel their political energy through this medium, it's being used in unforeseen ways with social repercussions that were never anticipated". Chakrabarti added that Facebook was "far too slow" to recognize how foreign powers used its platform to meddle with the United States presidential election in 2016. "That's 1000x more than any problematic ads we've found", Zuckerberg wrote in a September 2017 Facebook post.

Chakrabarti's post, as well as those from outside contributors, reflect a broader effort by Facebook to wrestle with the implications of its global influence. However, Facebook said that "when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information - reading but not interacting with people - they report feeling worse afterward". On the heels of that analysis, Facebook last week announced major changes to its algorithm that will reduce the presence of companies and brands on the platform in a bid to restore a focus on human relationships.

Today's discussion on Facebook is part of a series of "Hard Questions" from the social media network. The wide ranging topics underscore the social network's sprawling role in social and civic life. Most recently, executives from Facebook, YouTube and Twitter appeared before a Senate committee last week to discuss the " steps social media platforms are taking to combat the spread of extremist propaganda over the Internet". "Our role is to ensure that the good outweighs the forces that can compromise healthy discourse".

The posts come weeks after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that his annual personal challenge for 2018 would be tackling abuse, hate, and foreign interference on Facebook.

Facebook, he said, makes "too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools".

On fighting "False News" on the site, Chakrabarti cited the enrolment of third-party fact-checkers, and the creation of "trust indicators" to "help people sharpen their social media literacy". In November, federal lawmakers called the industry before Congress to account for its role in the 2016 election. Among other concerns, Sunstein takes issue with Facebook's relentless push toward ever more personalized information streams.

"From the Arab Spring to robust elections around the globe, social media seemed like a positive", Katie Harbath, director of the global politics and government outreach department, wrote in a blog post Monday.

For media writer Matthew Ingram, the changes "not only won't fix the problem of 'fake news, ' but could actually make it worse instead of better".

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