How Facebook Influenced the 2016 Election

Facebook is now under criticism for not blocking fake news sites, but this is a relatively minor problem compared to another problem that the platform inadvertently caused. What happened was similar to how a mob of cops behaves when one starts shooting; everyone panics and starts shooting also. The escalating fear fuels more bullets. And, when they finally run out of the bullets, and after the smoke clears up, they realize that they were just shooting at each other. I have a theory why this happens on Facebook and how we could potentially prevent it.

Before we get to the solution, let’s define the problem. People were escalating their own fears on Facebook against non-existent enemies. The enemies were non-existent because most people surround themselves with others with similar political views and/or because they have unfriended their opponents. Facebook fanned the mass hysteria, which made many people blind to the readily available facts. This isn’t just about being a frog in a well or in an echo chamber. Unlike the one-way mass media (TV, newspaper, website), Facebook, being a two-way mass media, is capable of creating peer pressure to conform, suppressing dissent and critical thinking, and threatening people of becoming a social pariah within their own circle of friends. “Only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” couldn’t be more salient.

Now (nine days after the election), the general consensus is that Clinton lost because she neglected the rural working-class whites, particularly the blue-collar workers who are less educated. Clinton thought she had Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania in the bag but she didn’t. Nate Cohn of The New York Times said, “Donald J. Trump won the presidency by riding an enormous wave of support among white working-class voters.” In retrospect, the margins in those key states weren’t insurmountable. Had they paused their apocalyptic thinking and became curious of these disenfranchised voters, Clinton could have visited those states and listened to their economic concerns even in the final month of their campaign. She might have been able to change their minds.

This blindness is a serious problem regardless of the outcome of the election. Even if Clinton had won, we would have realized this blindness given the surprising strength of Trump. The Democrats simply didn’t know that there was a legitimate reason many people were voting for Trump. So blinded by their own fears that they assumed bigotry alone was driving Trump supporters.

For the record, I did not predict Trump’s victory but I saw the legitimate reasons many people were supporting Trump. These people did not deserve the accusations of bigotry. It was not hard to find the reasons for their support. You just had to be curious. I wrote about it a lot on my blog (e.g Wondering Why Anyone Could Vote for Trump?, Is Racism on the Rise in the US?, and It’s the Whole Political System, Stupid) and on my Facebook wall. What was shocking to me is that some of my friends became angry at me for writing them. Some even told me to stop. Some blocked or unfriended me. But if you read them now, I think you would see that there was nothing offensive about what I wrote. They read like many of the post-analyses circulating among the Democrats now. It’s one thing to be angry at a particular opinion, it’s quite another to be angry at someone for stating an opinion. In New York, the latter was exactly what was happening. You could not say anything remotely sympathetic to Trump supporters, and this is why so many people were so blind.

So, why does this happen on Facebook? Because there are two very distinct reasons why people use Facebook. For most people, Facebook is a tool to receive emotional support. For this reason, Facebook became a platform to encourage confirmation bias. The reason why the fake news stories became so popular was because people were desperately looking for stories that made them feel good for the choices they had already made.

For instance, here is one of the most popular fake headlines:

“WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS... Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL! Breaking news”

It does not require a scientific proof to agree that Clinton supporters who are looking for emotional support wouldn’t be interested in clicking on this headline. Why add more to their own fear and anxiety? These are obviously written for the Trump supporters to confirm their own bias. So, these fake headlines couldn’t have influenced the election much.

Another reason why some people use Facebook is to engage in a real discussion, to validate their own ideas, to receive feedback, to see if they hold up well against critical scrutiny.

The problem is that these two uses of Facebook are fundamentally incompatible. Just think about it. Let’s say you posted something right before going to sleep with the expectation that you would receive emotional support from your friends, but you received a critical response instead. You would indeed be pissed off. You’d think, “Asshole! I didn’t ask for this! Now I can’t go to sleep!!” During this election, some of my friends were so emotionally raw that simply posting something on my own timeline angered them. I avoided commenting on the posts by the emotional support seekers.

What complicates this problem further is the fact that many people mix both uses. So, it’s not immediately clear to anyone what sort of responses people are looking for. This is even further complicated by the fact that many people would like to think of themselves as critical thinkers even if they are not capable of actually handling criticism.

In other words, Facebook is an emotional minefield which also has emotional food scattered in equal number. What we need to do is to separate them.

What we do not want to encourage is for people to strengthen their confirmation bias in their increasingly small bubbles. We want to encourage people to be exposed to different ideas and values. For everyone to have a more pleasant, less stressful Facebook experience, we need to create an environment where the seekers of emotional support are protected from the critical thinkers and the critical thinkers are protected from the emotional support seekers. The latter may not be obvious but most critical thinkers are not looking to be the targets of people’s anger. They need to be able to express themselves without inciting anger or risking becoming a social pariah.

One way to achieve this is to indicate on each post if you are open to critical scrutiny. Otherwise we assume emotional support as the default expectation. If there is a way to flag each post, we would be able to filter posts depending on our mood. There would be no need to block or unfriend anyone.

Clearly indicating as such would also allow Facebook to identify repeat offenders. The original poster could then anonymously flag offending comments, and Facebook could warn the offender after a certain number of complaints. The offenders would not know who complained because a warning consists of multiple offenses. Keep in mind that this goes both ways. If someone gets angry even though the post is marked for critical inquiry, the original poster can flag that person too.

Another solution would be to use an entirely different platform for critical inquiries. Medium is a good choice for this, because it consists of more critical thinkers than the seekers of emotional support (at least in my observation). But unfortunately, the problem with this solution is that the audience on Medium is still very small compared to Facebook. Unless you are famous to some degree, you are not likely to get any response.

I read somewhere that Facebook is considering a way to categorize each post (e.g. politics, jokes, food, family, etc..), but in terms of avoiding conflicts, this type of categorization would not be effective because any topic could potentially be contentious. If Facebook wants to avoid another election fueled by mass-hysteria, it should seriously consider offering a way to separate these two uses of their platform.