Playing with Politics: How Facebook & the Press Harm Everyone

Facebook, Algorithms, & Political Games

Sam Chavez
Sam Chavez

Table of Contents

There’s a lot going on lately (when do we get a break?!). Too much news to really know what’s going on. This firehose of information is doing a disservice to the public. We are not able to keep up, let alone reflect on the implications of said news.

As the press obsesses over the ups and downs of the Democratic fights in Congress over Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, they lose sight of their role in informing the public.

Dominating the press coverage with the winners and losers in Washington does not help the mother working a minimum wage trying to find affordable child care for her son, the Latino family that was displaced by wildfires in Northern California, or the senior who can’t afford dental coverage despite being on Medicare.

But do you know what does help those people?

The Build Back Better Plan.

Sadly, only 10% of the public know the specifics of the plan and 29% don’t know at all what’s in it (& there’s a lot of good in it). Yes, this is a poor reflection on Democrats, President Biden, and Congressional leadership in terms of their messaging, but it’s also a big fail for the press.

All Game; No Substance

In our bifurcated media landscape, it’s nearly impossible for Democrats to properly get their message out without media support. Republicans can easily call up Rupert Murdoch and get booked on Fox News that night to drum up hate and resentment towards some issue, but Democrats do not have that luxury (unless we can figure out how to clone Rachel Maddow). Despite the GOP’s claims, CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post, etc. are mainstream news outlets, not Democrat messaging machines like Fox News is to the GOP.

The political press has turned today’s most important issues into a sport between the two political parties and diluted the implications to the American people in the process.

Facebook’s No Good, Very Bad Week

Take the Facebook revelations this week. 17 US news organizations worked with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen to release internal documents that show how much Facebook knows its product is damaging. The news dump started on Friday night and accelerated on Monday with every major news organization dumping lengthy articles.

The revelations are astounding and frightening for the future of civil society and democracy across the world (yes, it is that serious).

  • When Facebook created a test account of a generic conservative woman, the account was flooded with conspiracy theories within days showing that Facebook’s algorithm breeds extremism in those without a history of radicalism.
  • It was even worse when they did the same in India.
  • They lifted limits on election-related misinformation after November, opening the door for Facebook to be a key player in fomenting the Big Lie that led to the January 6th insurrection (including planning it on Facebook).
  • Mark Zuckerberg personally overruled staff to abandon the idea of creating a Spanish-language voter information resource for WhatsApp because it would be “too partisan” (how is an entire ethnicity partisan?)
  • It has a secret whitelist of VIPs (including Steve Bannon and other disinformation spreaders) that are exempted from Facebook’s content rules allowing them to spread whatever banned content they want.
  • Instagram is incredibly harmful to teenagers especially teenage girls causing depression, suicidal thoughts, body dysmorphia, and more.

The problem is not with the revelations, but the number of revelations.

It’s too much.

I am a voracious reader of the news and I couldn’t keep up. Dumping all of these negative revelations has actually been beneficial for Facebook. Their stock price is up and the public is confused. A confused public means that Facebook can skirt by without addressing the individual issues at hand.

These revelations clearly show the harm that Facebook is inflicting on our individual mental health, our society, and the ability to maintain democracy. But that fact has gotten lost in the coverage, allowing the bad actors to thrive.

Bad Coverage Meet Real-World Harms

This is a consistent theme across much of today’s news coverage. By presenting political news coverage as a game being played between the right and left, the people living in America are left out.

Putting aside failures to report on the tangible benefits everyday people would get from the Build Back Better plan, the press also downplays the threats we face by positioning political coverage as a zero-sum game.

And it’s having real-world implications.

Two stories came out over the weekend highlighting how misinformation, Donald Trump, QAnon, and conspiracy theories from Facebook have torn apart towns in the west.

Kalispell, Montana has seen 9 teenagers commit suicide this year as the town is rocked by anti-mask anger, Confederate flags, school board fights, and an all-out brawl over a gay pride flag on a 4th of July parade float.

“Our community is going through a divorce right now,” Mark Johnson, the mayor of Kalispell, “The adults are arguing about what’s right and what’s wrong. The kids are watching it happen. They don’t feel they’re on firm footing.”

Another story tells the tale of one woman blowing up an effort to make a corner of central Montana a national heritage area because it was a “liberal plot” despite President Ronald Reagan creating National Heritage Areas in the first place.

“They make it a political thing because if you have a Democrat involved, then they are all against it,” he said. “It’s so hard to build something and so easy to tear it down. It’s maddening. It’s so easy to destroy something with untruths.”

There are hundreds of other towns and families just like these that are being destroyed because of the lies being spread by Facebook and right-wing news outlets. A man even killed his own children after believing QAnon lies.

The Looming & Persistent Threat

But the biggest failure of all is the enduring threat of the Big Lie both past and future.

In the past, we have the growing revelation that sitting members of Congress and the Trump administration actively planned the January 6th insurrection. That they knew exactly what would happen that day. In fact, here’s a video Marjorie Taylor Green recorded herself at the White House after “a great planning session.” I guess we know why Steve Bannon is so desperately trying to dodge the January 6th Commission (at least Liz Cheney knows).

In layman’s terms, that’s called an attempted coup against the United States government.

And yet, the press has been very quiet on these revelations, choosing to cover Democrats’ internal struggles instead.

By not covering the past, we are doomed to repeat in the future.

As I’ve written, those plans for the future are already underway. Republican-controlled states are passing voter suppression bills so they can win with fewer votes, installing pro-insurrectionists to state and local election roles, and tweaking the laws to make it easier to decertify unwanted election outcomes (aka a Democratic win).

If Republicans take the House and/or Senate in next year's Midterms, the GOP controlled by Donald Trump is set up to “legally” steal the 2024 election.

This is not a far away fear, but a real threat that we could stumble into if we are not careful.

  1. First, you make it harder for certain people to vote (state voter suppression bills)
  2. Next, you install loyalists in local election official roles
  3. Then, you pass laws to make sure said loyalists control the election certification
  4. After election day, state and local loyalists falsely certify a GOP win
  5. Finally, you use the GOP-controlled Congress to certify the false state certifications
  6. Extra credit if the GOP-controlled Supreme Court rules in favor of the false certifications
  7. Voila! Donald Trump is president in 2025 again.

Now that sounds really dark and too far-fetched, but the authoritarian arm of the GOP has been working at this for decades by focusing on local elections and ramming through Supreme Court nominations.

But it's important to remember it’s not over yet!

We have to raise awareness and call out the threats that we face for us to begin to restore our society and democracy. Part of that responsibility is to pressure the press to center the American people in its coverage and be clear about the threats and consequences that we face.

As we move closer to the 2022 Midterms, it’s on us to make sure as many voters know the consequences as possible.

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Sam Chavez

Sam is a writer, strategist, and curious human. She founded the roots of change agency in 2020. Sam is a queer, white, LatinX activist who’s passionate about a livable planet & equitable societies.


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