Is What's Good for Facebook Not so Good for Democracy?

Around the country, thousands have returned to the streets again to protest the deaths of black people at the hands of the police. One of those deaths, the shooting of 32-year-old Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, was broadcast on Facebook Live by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, spurring the outrage that prompted people around the country to act.

The fact that an extraordinarily self-possessed user managed to deploy Facebook’s live tool to broadcast a police killing seemed inevitable once it had happened. Videos of other such killings, spread by social media, have been a key driver of the Black Lives Matter movement. While Facebook’s decision to privilege video, particularly video hosted on Facebook itself, in its ever-changing algorithms likely helped Reynolds’s video go viral, but also raises questions about how much power social networking sites have over politics and activism.

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While social media has become integral to the work of political organizing, activists are victims of the success they’ve helped create for the social networks. As social networking companies become the new media giants, they’ve become less welcoming to the grass roots. Algorithm tweaks leave some scrambling to adapt their strategies. Harassment and trolling — particularly targeting the marginalized — drive others away. And then there is the question of whether progressive activists can trust the motives of those who control the media they use.

For activists, this presents challenges. As Malaya Davis of the Ohio Student Association notes, social media remains a particularly potent tool in “high-intensity movement moments” like now, as well as for community-building in quieter times. Yet problems emerging around the use of social media have led organizers like herself to examine their strategy.

Algorithm Troubles

Online organizing persists, despite the fact that Facebook sometimes seems determined to…

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