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How Facebook Is Undermining Democracy


There are over 2.2 billion people who use Facebook at least once a month. The social networking site is one of the largest companies in the world and Forbes has ranked Facebook as one of the most valuable brands. 

The goal of Facebook is to connect users but Siva Vaidhyanathan says the social media site is actually turning users against each other. Vaidhyanathan is the author of “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us And Undermines Democracy” (Oxford University Press/2018). He is also the Robertson Professor of Media Studies and director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia.

The author talks to host Frank Stasio about the historical and legal context of Facebook and why he says the website is making democracy more challenging. Vaidhyanathan will be the keynote speaker at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Tuesday, Sept 25 at 7 p.m. in Carroll Hall for the tenth-annual First Ammendment Day


Siva Vaidhyanathan on how Facebook ads changed the 2016 U.S. presidential election:

It's not really about changing minds, it's about motivation and demotivation. Now remember, this was an unusual election: it had one of the largest collections of unmotivated and undecided voters that we've had in 30 years. I mean, there were a whole lot of Americans, maybe 10 percent of the electorate, [that] hadn't made up its mind in late October ... There was widespread dissatisfaction with both candidates. So it wasn't hard to find likely Clinton voters, or possible Clinton voters in South Florida perhaps, who maybe were men of Haitian descent who were already maybe a little hesitant to vote for a woman. And [they] only needed the reminder that Bill Clinton marched around Haiti promising all these great changes after the last earthquake and then never delivered. That can demotivate a thousand, five thousand, ten thousand people and that might contribute to the difference.

The great thing about Cambridge Analytica for me is not that it was some big scandal with great repercussions, because it really wasn't. It's that it finally woke people up to the problem. - Siva Vaidhyanathan

On how the internet and social media have changed public discourse:

We went from a moment in the 20th century where the biggest problems in information and media were a lack of diversity of voices, concentrated voices – largely old white men telling us what was important in the world – and a shortage of information or concentrations of information. And in an instant, [in] about a decade, we flip that to the point where now it's cacophony, now it is distraction and now everybody is a heckler.

How Facebook users can make a difference:

The only hope we have is to act as citizens. Resigning from Facebook isn't going to make a difference. Facebook doesn't care. If a million Americans quit tomorrow, they would make up that difference in Brazil in the next six months. They just don't care. And besides, we are not Facebook's customers. We don't write checks to Facebook. We're just cattle to Facebook. Now if a million advertisers quit Facebook, that would be something. But that's not going to happen because Facebook has the best advertising system ever created. And they're not suckers. They're going to keep advertising on Facebook.

Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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