Strategy 5 Build Civic Information Architecture that Supports Common Purpose

Assess Social Media’s Civic Value

Strategy 5
Build Civic Information Architecture that Supports Common Purpose

Recommendation 5.1

Form a high-level working group to articulate and measure social media’s civic obligations and incorporate those defined metrics in the Democratic Engagement Project, described in Recommendation 5.5. 

Read in the Report

The dangers of social media for democracy

It is not hard to find examples of social media uses that weaken democratic society.

  • Problematic practices on platforms like Facebook may impact elections, as foreign and domestic political actors sow disinformation and discord.
  • Extremist videos on YouTube may be contributing to a wave of ethno-nationalist violence.
  • The shooter behind the massacre at a Christchurch, New Zealand mosque live-streamed the attack on social media and relied on it to spread his manifesto.

These examples, among many others, demonstrate the undeniably negative influence of social media, and as such they have fueled reasonable calls for regulation and reform.

But social media is not inherently bad for democracy

Many other examples demonstrate how social media platforms are strengthening democratic society.

  • In Tunisia during the 2010 revolution, protesters bypassed censors and attracted international media attention by sharing footage on Facebook.
  • The #MeToo movement has used social media to bring about change at a global level.
  • During the COVID-19 crisis, social media and videoconferencing technologies helped people around the world sustain a sense of connectedness, helping to ensure that physical distancing did not result in utter civic isolation and atomization.
  • #BlackLivesMatter grew from a hashtag to an organization to a movement that is now a leader in the fight for racial justice

There is a lesson in this: we need to work not only to prevent the detrimental impacts of social media on democracy but also to understand—and articulate a positive vision for—what social media can do for democracy.

Assessing the proper role of social media

Today’s platform developers and social media users should engage in an open and candid conversation to articulate what social media should do for us as citizens in a self-governing society.

Metrics must be developed to understand how well a platform fulfills different areas of civic purpose: for instance, user exposure to a diversity of viewpoints. By 2026, these metrics should be in use to capture changes flowing from the recommendations in Strategy 5. They will help us draw distinctions between social media, generically understood, and civic media, designed for practices that are themselves supportive of democracy.

“Anybody who’s paying any attention knows what is happening on social media, that conflict is heightened, especially inter-party conflict. And outside forces are manipulating us to not trust our institutions, and we see the effect that that’s having.”
—Akron, Ohio
“You can be at home while your kids are running around you, and you’re there with your kids in your home, and you’re cooking dinner. So, social media can kind of empower you in a way to stay engaged, but still allow you to live your normal life.”
—Charlotte, North Carolina
“Now, I feel like we’re getting a little bit less reflective, and careful with each coming year. So I mean, Twitter… I mean, just thinking about Twitter and stuff, it’s completely unreflective. We have the ability to reflect if we wanted to, but we’re just not using it.”
—Jackson, Mississippi
“But if it wasn’t for social media, I would not have gotten involved at all, you know?”
—Lexington, Kentucky
“People organize themselves on social media for a lot of issues, but then don’t take that action to the council chambers, don’t take that action to emailing their electeds. The conversation is happening, and they’re very organized, but virtually. So it’s something that we’re struggling with, and how to engage those people to come forward.”
—Ventura County, California
“[Social media] has wonderful applications, but it also contributes to the degradation of our civil discourse because people will say things online that they would never say to someone face to face because they hide behind that anonymity … it was like opening Pandora’s box, I think, in terms of its impact.”
—Dover-Foxcroft, Maine
“We’re more insular than we have been. Even in technology, your Facebook friends probably think a lot like you. The community where you live is probably very much like you, in a lot of ways. So I think technology helps people think too much about kind of their own silent perspective and not really understand how other people think and feel.”
—Tempe, Arizona

Champion

Civic Health Project,Civic Signals Project, The Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and CivicLex are committed to working to implement this recommendation in order to help reinvent American democracy for the 21st century.

Civic Health Project is dedicated to reducing toxic partisan polarization and enabling healthier public discourse and decision-making across our citizenry, politics, and media. Through grant making and advocacy, Civic Health Project supports initiatives that empower Americans to reject tribal partisanship and come together to solve our nation’s greatest challenges.

The Civic Signals project, a partnership between the National Conference on Citizenship and the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, is working to facilitate dialogue by bringing together experts to reimagine the public goods that can be generated in digital spaces. This and similar projects can support the development of metrics for evaluating the benefits or harms to democracy of social media platforms.

The Institute for The Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (coming soon)

CivicLex is a civic education and media organization based in Fayette County, Kentucky that works to help residents understand and get involved with the issues, policies, and processes that shape where they live. 

See the full list of Our Common Purpose Champions.

In order to implement Recommendation 5.1 by 2026, the Commission proposes the following milestones to complete by year-end of:

2020

  • Announce formation of high-level working group on Civic Signals metrics.

2024

  • Civic Signals metrics are in use for data-gathering prior to the impact of the Public Interest Mandate for Social Media legislation. 

2026

  • Civic Signals metrics are in use and able to begin to capture changes flowing from the changed communications and media ecosystem.