The Facebookification of Local Life

A new study shows how dependence on social media is remaking local civic life, causing the "evaporation" of politics.

Three out of four Americans visit Facebook at least once a day, according to Pew Research. Two-thirds visit Instagram at least once a day. Half visit Youtube. And depending on whose estimate you trust, people spend anywhere between 75 and 150 minutes a day, on average, on social media. This is not because we are all addicted to social media, a claim that is thrown around too lightly. As journalist Maia Szalavitz points out, addiction is a compulsive behavior like drug use that continues despite harm. Dependence is when we need a drug to function. We are dependent on these social media platforms because so much of our personal and public lives are conducted through them.

While the lion’s share of attention to how platforms affect our lives goes to Big Questions like, “Should Donald Trump be allowed to come back onto Facebook,” an issue that deserves its own symposium, there are also more mundane but pervasive effects that deserve more notice. So that is why when I saw the title of a new research paper by communications professor Kjerstin Thorson and a group of her graduate students at Michigan State University, I dove in with interest. “Platform Civics: Facebook in the Local Information Infrastructure” (go here to request a copy) is the result of two-part study. Thorson and her team gathered a group of local civic actors and organizations — local elected officials, government agencies, community organizations, libraries and the like — and studied how they used Facebook over the course of 2017 and part of 2018, looking at the content of their posts and then interviewing communications staff in charge of managing these actors’ Facebook use.

Thorson’s findings are subtle and significant. Facebook is disrupting, supplanting and replacing traditional news ecosystems, with most civic actors relying on it more and more for everything from getting the word out to fundraising and building community engagement. The fact that they can do this more cheaply than buying ads on print or TV is positive. But this comes at multiple costs. First, as the business model for traditional news outlets continues to spiral downward, producing local news deserts in more places, the Facebookified information ecosystem produces less political accountability, because civic actors generally don’t investigate themselves. And second and more subtly, civic actors are growing shy of broaching public issues because of how engagement on their Facebook pages tends toward toxicity. The result is a local civic public sphere with less open dialogue and more pictures of cute puppies.

I hadn’t heard of Thorson before reading this paper, and decided to give her a call. If you want to read the (slightly edited) transcript of our full conversation, which took place January 7th, go here. But below is a taste of what we talked about.

Kjerstin Thorson: Digital media have a huge role to play in disrupting the business model that sustained local media. Local media have shrunk and shrunk and shrunk. In many places they’ve disappeared altogether except for possibly television news, and certainly the quality has been eroded along with the size and subscriptions to the newspaper. What platforms are really good at — and I would include Uber as well as Facebook here — what they’re really good at is inserting themselves into disrupted spaces.

The way I think about Facebook and how intentionally they’ve inserted themselves into these local information infrastructures — they offer themselves as a Swiss Army knife. Here are all these organizations who need to reach their communities and simply can’t. You hear over and over again that, “No one covers my beat there. No one has time for the stories. If I have a press event, no one’s going to come. if I write a press release, nothing happens to it.” And so Facebook comes in and says, not only will we solve this problem, we will build products to help you solve that problem better and better. As long as of course eventually you pay for it….

Micah Sifry: The interesting thing about the Facebook promotion model is that the cost for acquiring eyeballs isn’t that high per post. And it’s actually probably way more efficient than buying a print ad in an old-fashioned newspaper, magnitudes more efficient. So why isn’t it a good thing in your mind that all these local civic actors and organizations are using Facebook more? Why isn’t it a good enough replacement? Your paper is definitely critical of its effect on the local political information infrastructure. So if Facebook has not just disrupted, but has taken a central position as one of the primary platforms that all these actors will use to reach the public or engage with the public, why in your view is that not a good thing?

Kjerstin Thorson: I would say it’s not necessarily bad for everything, but it is bad for political information. Because what we’ve been finding is that regular people (not the political provocateurs) do not like the drama of Facebook. They don’t want it, they don’t want conflicts, they don’t want the sort of unpleasant back and forth happening underneath their posts, and organizations feel that way as well. News organizations are set up to deal with that. The expectation of a news organization is that they will write stories about politics, they will have at least some sort of watchdog role and maybe even an antagonistic role with local politicians. On the other hand, there is no incentive whatsoever for a local government to investigate itself. It was amazing to see what you might call the evaporation of politics when it comes to Facebook.

For example, there’s a long standing tradition of librarians being activists. They care deeply about things like homeless rights and the privacy rights of people and many active political issues, but in the interviews we did for our study they very strongly felt that they cannot post about any of that on Facebook. That’s because Facebook, the way it’s set up, breeds conflict and negativity. It allows anyone to come in and post whatever they want, which seems to end up in making the organization look bad. And they were there on Facebook, in part, to inform people, but they’re also there for their own instrumental reasons like needing to fundraise or to attract attention….

There’s a very specific story that another librarian shared with us where there had been an incident after Michigan passed a law saying that you couldn’t bring guns into certain public spaces, including libraries. That became sort of a nationalized issue with piling on from groups from outside Michigan that were really concerned about this. The library held a series of public forums in physical space that they thought were extremely productive, but when they posted about them on Facebook that space became really toxic. What you hear over and over again, and you hear this when you talk to young people about their political experiences online as well, is that these moments are really powerful exemplars that shaped future behavior.

Another argument that we make in the paper is what does get posted and circulated more are the things that produce the correct outcomes that people want. That is more engagement or more positive kind of commenting. And so in that way, platforms are governing behavior. It’s not like they say you have to post this or that but you learn you learn from experience this is going to have a bad outcome for me and that is going to have a good one.

Micah Sifry: So if I can summarize, there are two of the negative effects of this disruption. One is the weakening of the watchdog role. If independent news organizations lose their footing economically, because everybody’s a publisher now, you can’t expect the local political actors to hold themselves accountable the way an independent news organization would. Number two is avoiding raising subjects that might be controversial because of this sense that this will generate toxic off-putting experiences which is not the kind of community engagement that you want.

Kjerstin Thorson: And I would add to that, it’s not just the avoidance of definitely controversial issues. Because it’s so uncertain what’s going to become controversial, the net is cast fairly wide across what is political and what is considered potentially controversial. There’s a story in our paper about a librarian that posted about transgender rights in a way that produced an outcome that was very problematic for her. Local politics is really different than national politics, it’s not usually partisan in the same way. It’s a new feeling to feel like you’re on very shaky ground about what’s going to be controversial. I think that’s a really challenging thing for these kinds of organizations to navigate, without just saying, well, let’s just not go anywhere near this kind of stuff.

Again, to read the full transcript of our conversation, go to my post on Medium. (And stay tuned for more content like this interview; I’m going to work on posting shorter versions here and the full text on Medium.)

Bonus link for the truly geeky: Ethan Zuckerman and Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci on the top 100 most popular social media sites, worldwide.

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Then and Now

Several weeks ago, Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg, the co-founders of Indivisible, put out a new “Practical Guide for Fixing Our Democracy” that lays out their vision for continuing the movement they helped start four years ago. While the document has a lot of useful ideas, I was brought up short by how they contrast the current moment with the last time Democrats took the White House. While they correctly point out that the Obama Administration wasted precious time and energy on trying to woo a few Republicans into supporting their agenda, Levin and Greenberg are silent on how Obama’s team sidelined its own base. They write, “Democrats were unprepared for the grassroots, conservative backlash that grew as congressional debates stretched on. The Tea Party, which began to pick up steam in early 2009, was locally-focused, well organized, and hell-bent on stopping as much of the Obama agenda as possible. We saw it up close—in fact our experiences with the Tea Party served as inspiration for the original Indivisible Guide (minus their racism and violence). This reactionary grassroots force pressured Republicans to reject compromise with Democrats, and made it as politically painful as possible for Democrats to support Obama’s agenda. Meanwhile, the brilliant organizing effort by Obama for America that had built a Blue Wave in 2008 failed to translate into any sizable grassroots movement in support of Obama’s agenda in 2009.”

“Failed to translate” is a very impressive use of the passive voice! Did no one have any political agency in 2009? Did Democratic congressional staffers like Levin and Greenberg not have any sense of what was done with OFA? Since founding Indivisible, Levin and Greenberg have made much use of their grassroots base without showing that they really understand it. I guess that extends backwards as well. (Stay tuned: I’m just about done editing the transcript of the RootsCamp panel I did with local Indivisible leaders Aram Fischer and Paula Martinos-Mantay and University of Pittsburgh professor Lara Putnam and will have more on this terrain soon.)

Odds and Ends

-The latest conventional wisdom is that former President Trump isn’t going to form a third party, but that it’s just his way of forcing Republicans to toe his line. That may be, but longtime right-watcher David Niewert makes an extremely well-documented case that Trump has been thinking about a Patriot Party and openly proclaiming his support for such a formation for quite a while, while fooling a lot of people into thinking that he is just talking about some generic kind of patriotism.

-Nathan Schneider on the 10th Anniversary of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution and the worldwide wave that followed, which still ripples today, is well worth your time.

-Also worth reading: Steven Waldman on why Biden should make a big bet on expanding Americorps.

-“Politicians in the United States have events, they have weekend retreats, you have to write a check and then you're invited and participate. So if you work in the government affairs team in the United States, you spend your weekends going to these events; you spend your evenings going to these dinners, and the reason you go is because the PAC writes a check." That’s Microsoft President Brad Smith on why his company has a PAC, from a recent internal company all-hands meeting leaked to Maciej Ceglowski.