How has Social Media Changed Civic Engagement?

Andrea Faiss, Chief Operating Officer, ALF Silicon Valley

Is social media a virtual public square in which people engage in a free and open exchange of ideas resulting in an improved democratic process?

Is social media to blame for the tenor of the presidential campaign or was social media the innocent and accurate messenger of public sentiment? Would the tenor of the campaign have been different if social media didn’t exist?

64% of adults get their news from social media, but only 35% find it at least somewhat trustworthy. Evidence suggests that trust in traditional news sources is also on the decline. Who, then, does the public trust to deliver information and why?

Can, and should, technological strategies mitigate the polarizing and insulating effects “digital echo chambers” have on users?

These are some of the questions experts, students and ALF Senior Fellows grappled with at a recent Courageous Conversations presented by ALF and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

All acknowledged that social media can be a powerful and positive tool.

But all also lamented the spreading of untruths, manipulation by algorithm, public gullibility.

They debated where the responsibility lies when social media fails us. With Facebook, Google? With the truth twisters? With the consumers? With the schools for not teaching civic engagement? With the public’s lust for 24/7 entertainment?

Ideas were offered, both practical and philosophical. A student suggested a technology solution for assessing the reliability of material for those who wish to ascertain fact versus fiction.

Others discussed strategies for changing our polarized political culture and fostering empathy and acceptance of different perspectives.

But ultimately, it came down to this. Individuals must make a choice. We must choose to seek the truth, to be open to other perspectives, to be informed about the tools upon which we rely for information. And as individuals we must choose to work together to create the standards for civic engagement in our country. This takes time. It takes commitment. It takes courage.

But the choice is ours.