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- Political scientist Barbara Walter said unregulated social media is increasing the threat of a civil war.
- “Let people put whatever they want on social media,” Walter said in an interview on Wednesday.
- “But don’t allow the tech companies… to push the most extreme material into people’s hands,” she added.
In a liberal democracy, people have the right to voice opinions that are wrong, ugly, and sometimes evil — and they often do. But that does not mean that corporations have a right to exploit those views for profit, and in the process contribute to the fracturing of societies and damage the rule of law, a leading political scientist argued Wednesday.
In her 2022 book, “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them,” Barbara F. Walter, a professor at the University of California San Diego, described contemporary social media as a boon to the “ethnic entrepreneur”: those who stoke resentment among a dominant group that fears its power is slipping away in the face of demographic and political change.
In Malaysia, for example, Facebook was used by such demagogues to help incite genocide against the country’s Rohingya minority, who were depicted as murderers and rapists in content that went viral.
Speaking to journalist Farai Chideya in an interview aired by The 92nd Street Y, a Jewish community center in New York, Walter said that in the United States, hateful speech is generally protected by the First Amendment. But she argued that tech companies have not been acting as simple, neutral stewards of the digital public square.
She takes issue with the way social media acts to recommend content to users and keep them engaged for longer and what she says is their role in amplifying incendiary comments.
She argues in her book and explained in a 2021 interview that “people tend to ‘like’ information that taps into their emotions, and that tends to be stuff that makes them angry, outraged, resentful. And what the recommendation engines do is not just recommend more material like that, but more material that’s even more extreme.”
Addressing that, she said, is a necessity.
“People ask me: ‘What’s the single easiest thing that the United States could do to reduce our risk of civil war?’ And my answer is always the same: regulate social media,” Walter said.
In the US, democracy is slightly stronger than it was this time two years ago, Walter said — not because any of its institutions are stronger, but simply because the White House is not inhabited by someone who disregards the result of a democratic election. But it is “very vulnerable to backsliding if somebody like [former President Donald Trump] were to be elected again,” she said.
Trump famously used social media to not just gain power, including with nativist incitement against Mexican immigrants and racially-tinged demands to see former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, but to try to hold onto power once he was on the verge of losing it. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, through his intelligence services and state-run media properties, has also used social media to pursue his own anti-democratic agenda.
“If Putin wanted to somehow weaken France, German, the UK, the United States — he could not do this in any other way except the backdoor way through social media,” Walter argued. “And as long as social media is unregulated, he has easy access to try to divide these countries and to undercut support for democracy there.”
Walter continued: “We also know that the rise of ethnic factions, of hate crimes, of political violence, have all tracked to the rise not only of the internet and social media as a main news source, but it’s tracked with the algorithms that the major tech companies have developed.”
The answer is not censorship, she argued.
“Let people put whatever they want on social media,” Walter said. “But don’t allow tech companies, in an attempt to keep people engaged on their devices as long as possible, to push the most extreme material into people’s hands.”