But while Russian meddling is a serious problem, the current sentiment toward Silicon Valley borders on scapegoating. Facebook and Twitter are just a mirror, reflecting us. They reveal a society that is painfully divided, gullible to misinformation, dazzled by sensationalism, and willing to spread lies and promote hate. We don’t like this reflection, so we blame the mirror, painting ourselves as victims of Silicon Valley manipulation.
At the hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, squarely blamed the tech companies for Russian interference. “You bear this responsibility,” she said. “You’ve created these platforms.”
But we, the users, are not innocent. Some of the Russian propaganda on social media was cribbed from content that was posted by Americans. Yes, social media helps propaganda spread farther and faster. But Facebook and Twitter didn’t force users to share misinformation. Are Americans so easily duped? Or more alarming, did they simply believe what they wanted to believe?.. The real crisis is Americans’ inability or unwillingness to sift fact from fiction, a problem that is worsened by the mainstream media’s loss of credibility when it comes to setting the record straight... Facebook’s algorithms may encourage echo chambers, but that’s because the company figured out what users want... The real problem is that Americans don’t have a shared sense of reality... A couple of years ago, I was part of a team that tried that very experiment. We ran a Silicon Valley start-up called Parlio, which was later acquired by Quora. Parlio aimed to be a social media platform for civil debate. But what we discovered was that people loved the idea of reasoned debate, then decided that those debates took too much time. Thoughtful content was also less likely to go viral, and many users are addicted to the sugar rush of virality. So while people liked the idea of eating their vegetables, they still gravitated to Twitter’s candy aisle.
Social media platforms magnify our bad habits, even encourage them, but they don’t create them. Silicon Valley isn’t destroying democracy — only we can do that.