Many human rights organizations commonly use Facebook to spread educational messages around the world.
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The wrong kind of transparency could put these activists in real danger in many countries. Without transparency, it can be hard to hold politicians accountable for their own words. Micro-targeting can enable dishonest campaigns to spread toxic discourse without much consequence. This is an even more pernicious problem than foreign interference. But we hope that by setting a new bar for transparency, we can tackle both of these challenges simultaneously.
We recognize that the same tools that give people more voice can sometimes be used, by anyone, to spread hoaxes and misinformation. But even a handful of deliberately misleading stories can have dangerous consequences. To take just one example, in Australia a false news story claimed that the first Muslim woman to be a Member of Parliament had refused to lay a wreath on a national day of remembrance. This led people to flood her Facebook Page with abusive comments. In the public debate over false news, many believe Facebook should use its own judgment to filter out misinformation.
By helping people sharpen their social media literacy, we can help society be more resilient to misleading stories.
Even with all these countermeasures, the battle will never end. Misinformation campaigns are not amateur operations. They are professionalized and constantly try to game the system. We will always have more work to do. One of the most common criticisms of social media is that it creates echo chambers where people only see viewpoints they agree with — further driving us apart. Compared with the media landscape of the past, social media exposes us to a more diverse range of views.
The deeper question is how people respond when they encounter these differing opinions — do they listen to them, ignore them, or even block them?
Think about how our minds work. That makes bursting these bubbles hard because it requires pushing against deeply ingrained human instincts. Research shows that some obvious ideas — like showing people an article from an opposing perspective — could actually make us dig in even more.
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A better approach might be to show people many views, not just the opposing side. While we want Facebook to be a safe place for people to express themselves politically, we need to make sure no one is bullied or threatened for their views. To make matters more complex, governments themselves sometimes engage in such harassment. In one country we recently visited, a citizen reported that after he had posted a video critical of the authorities, the police paid him a visit to inspect his tax compliance. As more countries write laws that attempt to criminalize online discourse, the risk grows that states use their power to intimidate their critics.
That could have a chilling effect on speech. Policing this content at a global scale is an open research problem since it is hard for machines to understand the cultural nuances of political intimidation. And while we are hiring over 10, more people this year to work on safety and security, this is likely to remain a challenge. People on Facebook tend to represent every walk of life, but not everyone is using their voice equally.
Take women. They represent a majority of the population, yet are under-represented in public political dialogue on Facebook. If politicians mistake the views of a few with the views of many, that can make for bad public policy. Vulnerable populations could end up ignored, and fringe groups could appear mainstream. This is proof in my eyes that research-driven design can make social media a better medium for democracy.
Clearly, there is no shortage of challenges at the convergence of social media and democracy. But there are also many bright spots that keep me coming to work every day.
Our stories shine a light on challenges and victories
First, social media has enormous power to keep people informed. And it was one of only a handful of images that broke through what has been a nonstop, numbing flow of distressing imagery on social media emerging from Syria since protests calling for political change first erupted in March Nearly three decades ago, the term CNN Effect was coined. It became snappy shorthand and an academic paradigm to explain how new, real-time reporting on U. Both Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama faced images of major Syrian poison gas attacks in rebel-held areas that were filmed by local activists, posted on social media, and reported worldwide.
Trump and Obama would seem to provide two cases to explore some of the theory and research around the concept of a CNN Effect. These two decision-makers—one who prides himself on watching a lot of television, and another who says he deliberately does not—responded in different ways. But, in the end, it confirms that the CNN Effect, when it exists, is not decisive. President Trump's decision to launch targeted air strikes turned out to be a one-off: they did not shift overall policy on Syria nor did they significantly change the situation on the ground.
But interviews with senior U. While Obama pulled back from launching air strikes in , years of harrowing imagery emerging from the conflict kept Syria on the agenda. This included the covert program to arm and train what were regarded as moderate rebel forces to take on the Syrian military and its allies: Obama doubted it would succeed; his critics say there was never a coherent strategy. That led to a reliance on streams of information on social media provided mainly by activists. There was often valuable material, but it was hard to verify and, at times, turned out to be wrong or misleading.
On the other side, Russian state propaganda pushed a narrative in support of President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Syria is also the most tangled geopolitical conflict of our time. The West, Arab states, and Turkey have provided significant military support to an array of rebel fighters including hard-line Islamists.
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Russia and Iran-backed militias bolstered Syrian government forces with formidable firepower. There have been many agendas, no easy answers, and no consensus on a way out of the crisis. A spiral into appalling violence has left more than half of Syria's postwar population displaced, dead, or a refugee in the biggest human exodus in decades. But this depends greatly on the wider strategic context, dominant thinking about how to respond to mass violence, and on decision-makers themselves.
This essay will first briefly explore the impact of the media in the Trump and Obama administrations. Later sections will highlight some critical facets of today's news and information landscape, including observations from my own reporting from Syria at key moments of this war. A day earlier, distressing images began to emerge from the scene of a poison gas attack in the rebel-held Syrian village of Khan Sheikhoun. Media activists were posting the first ghastly images of stricken women and children on social media.
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Sixty-three hours later, Commander in Chief Donald Trump ordered an air strike, involving dozens of Tomahawk missiles, on Syria's Shayrat airfield. It marked the first time the United States had directly targeted a military asset of President Assad.
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Six years of disturbing images, including grisly scenes from another major chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus in August , had not pushed President Barack Obama to escalate the United States' military involvement in this way. But both actions focused on this one significant threat.
President Trump's team then reverted to the broad outlines of the Syria policy that emerged in the latter years of President Obama's second term: a focus on defeating the extremist Islamic State now regarded as a global threat; a move away from arming and training an increasingly marginalized moderate rebel force; and a recognition that, despite years of grinding war, President Assad wasn't about to stand down, or be toppled.
At first, the air strikes appeared as a dramatic shift. They were widely hailed across the U. Even leading members of President Obama's team, who argued for air strikes in , expressed support. So did some prominent American journalists as well as Syrian activists and Gulf Arab allies. Whatever the term, a leader in the White House now seemed to fit the decades-old notion of a CNN Effect: a president, driven by disturbing television images, orders military action in response to an atrocity. It broke, not only with his predecessor's approach, but also with his own.
More than any other branch of U. President Trump is at another extreme. Much has been written about his attention, verging on obsession, to how the media portray him. Extensive studies have highlighted how powerful images can only make a real difference in the choices of decision-makers if an avenue already exists for them to act. Image heightens existing factors. This was a president who wanted to respond, and be seen to do so. Syria and Russia still question the evidence, as does a group of British and American scholars and journalists critical of Western policy.
Whatever President Trump's concern for the people of Syria, he also appeared driven to set himself apart from his predecessor's legacy. The only part that seemed clear was his emphasis on fighting extremist groups and working with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, a strongman whom he unfailingly held in high regard. Despite President Trump's assertion that he had changed his mind about President Assad and Syria, it became clear this was a one-off.
Since April , there have been repeated reports of other chemical attacks, albeit smaller in scale. An earlier statement by the White House Press Secretary that deadly barrel bombs, being dropped from Syrian warplanes with devastating effect, would not be tolerated went nowhere. Even more, the CIA 's covert program was quietly canceled. It had become increasingly clear, even during Obama's last years, that it was failing in its ambition to arm and train an effective rebel force to fight against President Assad's military and allies. The air strikes on the Syrian airfield fit the pattern that has emerged from extensive empirical and analytical research into the CNN Effect.
The term was coined during the — Gulf War when dramatic advances in technology made it possible for the United States' Cable News Network to broadcast live reports around the clock and around the world. Raw, real-time images and instant analysis flashed from front lines and briefing rooms. Suddenly, it seemed, there was a new and powerful pressure on policy-makers to respond.
Heartrending images were seen to have influenced President George Bush's decision to set up a safe haven and a no-fly zone in to protect Iraqi Kurds. A year later, reports of starving Somalis played a part in persuading President Bush to send in U. And shocking television footage of alleged war crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo were viewed as decisive factors in actions by Western militaries. Journalist Nik Gowing's extensive interviews with decision-makers in the Bosnian war concluded that media pressure had not led to any major strategic shifts by Western powers. This included, for example, airlifting children out of a conflict zone or air strikes targeting artillery positions of Bosnian Serb nationalists.
Crucially, this perception of the media's emerging muscle had dovetailed with a shift in strategic thinking among Western powers. It bears noting, however, that unlike earlier civil wars in the s that gave rise to the discussion of the CNN Effect, in subsequent crises including Syria, the United States was already involved militarily and was, therefore, a player in a war that was also a deepening humanitarian tragedy. The constant question in Syria was over the scope and scale of military intervention.