The 115th Congress is already in session, and before making final decisions about healthcare and tax reform, a different change may soon be made. After a video of Democratic congressmembers protesting gun laws with a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives was published on social media, House Speaker Paul Ryan proposed earlier this month that legislators should be fined for publishing video and photos from the House floor on their social media platforms. This repudiation of social media platforms for disseminating ugly truths is a threat not only to journalistic freedom and integrity, but also to democracy.
Though President-elect Donald Trump’s use of social media has been in the spotlight recently, another phenomenon that greatly affected the election must be considered — voter presence on social media and the dissemination of political views on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Both proved to be instrumental in facilitating political discussion and presenting unique and valid perspectives.
As their main news provider, social media occupies an extraordinary part of the lives of millennials. Now, it is also an essential part of the democratic process.
In this untraditional news cycle, the traditional news media has been criticized heavily. The New York Times has since published an apology for its sub-par reporting during the election and offered a recommitment to the values it stands for. Several other publications, including the Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post and Forbes, attributed the failure of the news media to elitism, lack of diversity in the newsroom and other issues.
However, while traditional news outlets focused on sensational op-eds, social media increasingly took on the role of furthering democracy. Facebook encouraged users to vote by using banners to remind them to register to vote, providing information guides for ballots and encouraging them to post about the importance of voting. Additionally, because of the prevalence of political discussion on Twitter, millennials felt engaged in and informed about the election, though that did not translate directly into record-breaking voting rates.
Citizens received information about their candidates quicker than ever before — in part because of social media. Citizens on Facebook and Twitter were constantly exposed to political discourse, even while simply scrolling through their feeds. The phenomenon of “stumbling upon news” meant that more citizens felt that they were informed about the election — there was just no way around it.
In coming election cycles, Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets must focus on revamping their algorithms to truly ensure that social media evolves into a productive, respectful and less divisive forum for discussion. Currently, social media certainly has its faults, but it has the potential to be one of the most dynamic mechanisms of democracy in our generation. The voice of a politically engaged teenager in Kansas can be just as loud as that of a Republican congressmember’s, and such a powerful tool must be utilized effectively.
In the age of social media, attaining balanced and truthful news is both the responsibility of the consumers and the producers. Because of the increasing number of content producers and the burgeoning market for confirmation bias, there will always be fake and partisan news. It is up to ethically committed publications and educated citizens to break through this unfortunate trend and return to the original purpose of journalism: seeking the truth. Social media outlets have a unique potential to advance this purpose and present their users with a well-rounded, diverse and educated set of viewpoints to inform their political decisions. In The Elements of Journalism, Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach claim that journalism should aim to provide “a forum for public criticism and compromise.” Additionally, the authors say that journalism must educate the electorate in a manner that allows them to make informed decisions. Social media accomplishes these objectives admirably well, and attempts like those of Ryan to censor it ought to be starkly repudiated.