November 11, 2017 19:58 GMT by nytimes.com

Letters: Social Media and Democracy

Letters: Social Media and Democracy

Readers say “follow the money,” and call on tech companies to limit their news feeds to legitimate sources.

To the Editor:

Re “Silicon Valley Can’t Destroy Democracy Without Our Help,” by Emily Parker (Op-Ed, Nov. 3):

Social media may not create our bad habits, but it feeds them, and for one reason alone: money.

Those who want to blame social media for the state of our democracy, as well as those who want to absolve the industry of blame, can’t ignore this essential point.

Twitter, Google and Facebook are moneymaking enterprises, and they will do whatever they need to do to increase revenue. Helping or hurting democracy is incidental to that goal, as are improving or degrading our daily lives, or making the world a better or worse place.

Social media may be only as harmful as we allow it to be, but as to whether social media is a force for good, as is so often claimed, I would ask this: How many people working in the industry would still be there if their jobs paid the same as, say, teaching or social work?

Don’t ask about the intentions, aspirations or responsibilities of social media companies. Just follow the money. That’s the real story.

STEVEN K. WOJCIKIEWICZ
PORTLAND, ORE.

To the Editor:

Emily Parker repeats industry ideas about individual responsibility and a faith in self-regulating systems. Manipulation, however, is a feature, not a bug, in many of the products and platforms that companies like Google and Facebook design. It is in fact the premise of the advertising businesses that account for some 90 percent of their revenue.

Discreet changes to the underlying algorithms of these platforms have immense power over what is seen by users but, more important, they affect what goes unseen.

But Silicon Valley corporations are willfully opaque in explaining how and where their algorithms work, what their objectives are and whom they are ultimately benefiting.

To call these platforms “a mirror” fails to acknowledge the role that ideology plays in their construction and the power Big Tech has to determine the winners and losers in our society.

JASON FRIEDMAN, BROOKLYN

To the Editor:

Re “How to Fix Facebook? We Asked 9 Experts” (news article, Nov. 1):

I found the suggested “fixes” to Facebook et al. unhelpful, focused on technical tweaks or appeals to somehow make us nicer or more knowledgeable.

Facebook, Twitter and so forth are publishers of readers’ posts. The closest comparison to them is perhaps the letters column of The New York Times. You “curate” your letters page very carefully; so should they.

It is no excuse to protest that they simply have too much “ink” to ever be able to do this. If you provide a huge platform, you should have a huge number of people looking after it. Like any publisher, they should be legally responsible for what they publish.

ANTHONY J. WALTERS, CHICAGO

To the Editor:

Getting the toothpaste back into the tube will not be easy. It’s been clear for some time now that social media is an instrument of chaos. It is the equivalent of millions of people standing on soapboxes on the street and shouting things at you. Many of the things are false, some are abusive and a lot of people hide behind curtains so you can’t know their true identities.

As more and more Americans believe what they see on social media, they will not agree on what is real and what is fake.

Democracy requires an informed and involved citizenry, and if the people in the country cannot even agree on what is actually happening, then how can our democracy survive?

It may be too late, but at the very least Facebook and the others must limit their news feeds to only what comes from legitimate, acknowledged professional journalism sources.

There will still be a lot of “alternate facts,” conspiracy theories and plain lies bandied about by both innocent and willful postings, and the sites certainly should provide fact-checks about any of these that gain currency. But to wean people, especially young people, away from social media and back to legitimate news sources may be an impossible task.

MICHAEL SPIELMAN, BRONX

To the Editor:

While reports of entities associated with the Russian government posting propagandistic material on social media outlets are undoubtedly true, those reports are neither surprising nor significant. It is no secret that outlets such as Facebook and Twitter are online gossip boards rather than journalistic or scholarly venues.

What is surprising is that people would base important decisions on social media postings since verification of their accuracy is virtually impossible. Doing so is intellectually lazy at best.

PAUL ROMERO, OAKLAND, CALIF.

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