Civic Salt: Facebook broke our civic ecosystem

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I remember when Facebook first came out. My natural inclination toward optimism and geeky interest in civics thought then: “This is utopia. People able to connect with their neighbors, immediately? Transparency and accessibility? We are going to have SO MANY great conversations on here. Maybe people will start paying attention to city council meetings, even.”

Ha. Ha. Ha. The sheer comic value of that statement tells us what we rarely talk about – the human impacts of our changing technology.

Facebook didn’t just fail to deliver on a promise to better connect us. It battered and broke our civic ecosystem. We live in a technological disaster world, to put it lightly, where the capabilities of systems continue to grow. Those shiny possibilities — the automations and algorithms, machine-learning and AI things. The ones you think about in a way that elicits both wonder and extreme anxiety. Those systems are bigger than us and nearly out of our control.

This is where a lot of people start to feel squeamish. There are some things you’d rather not think about in depth, thank you very much. The fact that a private company in California used facial recognition data from cameras in private parking lots and sold that data to ICE contractors, for example, to aid in deportation efforts. People really don’t like talking about that.

Our elections are of course impacted by this technological nightmare. How did that last election go for you, as a voter? How many shiny, glossy mailers did you put in the recycling bin? How many times did you feel a little spark of bubbling anger and exasperation when a fiery dose of some stupid political opinion was smashed on your face? A few times, I’m guessing.

Here’s the thing about the current state of our civics: Polarization doesn’t come from thin air. There is an existing and well-worn digital pathway to radicalization. Online forums like Reddit, Youtube, and Facebook can radicalize someone entirely online.

It’s entirely understandable to be exasperated with political polarization. I just wish more people thought about the systems behind that polarization. Instead we get candidates who see a glimmer of political opportunity in a broken system. “Look! It’s broken” is a pretty terrible campaign message when it’s not accompanied by a salve or a fundamental shift that would change that system.

Facebook is where we spend time. It’s where we get informed. And it’s a swirling cesspool of misinformation and polarization. Which is not to say that it’s inherently worse than our previous, mostly paper-based, mostly-white-male civic ecosystem. Digital tools give opportunity and access. But we do need to recognize its effect on our politics and on our broader society.

It’s depressing to think that it’s partially thanks to internet forums that one political party now has candidates mainstreaming white nationalism. A caravan of immigrants in Mexico has Republicans in Maine, of all places, afraid of what’s not even happening remotely close to the southern border. The prevailing thought of too many, cultivated on these forums and in Facebook groups, is that their neighbor is their enemy. That the other side is crooked, unfair, and dangerous.

That kind of thinking isn’t easy to remedy and it won’t change anytime soon, unfortunately. But we can be more aware of why they are there and how they operate in the larger civic ecosystem.

Civic ecosystems don’t build themselves. They thrive when people buy newspapers. When they donate to nonpartisan civic institutions. When people volunteer to help run the community. When schools teach an actual civics class.

But even though our politics and political discussions (if you can call them that) are predominantly happening online, the rest of those systems have yet to fully adapt and meet us – the voters – where we are. Those systems create our civic ecosystem. When more of that system adapts to our new ways of living, our discussions will get better.

We’ll probably have to start, however, by creating it ourselves. Maybe then people will start paying attention to city council meetings.

Emma Burnett of Portland is a civic technology evangelist and a communications and community organizing professional. Find Emma on Twitter @elburnett.

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