This recording is for a requirement for mass communications 7005-a graduate public opinion and public affairs course at Louisiana State University. We were given the chance to write a blog type post or record a podcast for the assignment so of course, I seized the chance to give a nod to my undergraduate radio training that I have such fond memories of. Here we go!
Today, it’s hard to turn on any traditional television news outlet, like CNN or FOX news without seeing a panel displaying tweets on a certain topic of discussion. While flawed, we cannot escape social media. Journalists get stories from here, politicians, like Trump, use social media to reach constituents and push their agenda, and about two-thirds of Americans get their news from social media. With the help of readings from my studies, I am going to offer many questions on Facebook’s and our government’s role in the make-up and measurement of public opinion.
The role of social media in a modern democracy, according to some political scientists, is a key part of interpreting public opinion. There are some big shifts happening in the tech world, particularly with social media giant, Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. This is in large part due to his controversial speech at Georgetown University where he announced that he would not censor any political ads—which seems to have influenced a hearing he was called for on Capitol Hill.
I consider the ideas that Susan Herbst discusses. She studies the cultivation of public opinion in her 1998 book, Reading Public Opinion, along with many of her other publications on the topic. In combination with this, I look to even more modern scholars, such as Dr. Shannon McGregor, an up and coming academic in the field of political science. I found her dissertation research to be an interesting update of Herbst’s to include social media as artifacts of public opinion.
Herbst’s argument is that there is more to public opinion than polls, which are so widely referenced in news media and by the President. She claims that there are many different artifacts, including popular culture, that are a part of the social construction of public opinion.
Facebook is arguably the most powerful tech company to date—possibly second only to Google. There are so many questions and concerns regarding Facebook’s and all of big tech’s role in censorship when it comes to misinformation, false political ads, and deep fakes. Mark Zuckerberg recently gave a speech at Georgetown University on just this. He publicly discusses his thoughts on Facebook’s role in democracy focusing on how people should have the opportunity to make sense of all this information, regardless of the message’s intent or potential impact.
“But there are also shifting cultural sensitivities and diverging views on what content people consider dangerous. Take misinformation. No one tells us they want to see misinformation. That’s why we work with independent fact checkers to stop hoaxes that are going viral from spreading. But misinformation is a pretty broad category. A lot of people like satire, which isn’t necessarily true. A lot of people talk about their experiences by telling stories that may be exaggerated or have inaccuracies but speak to a deeper truth in our lived experience. I think we need to be careful about restricting that. Even when there is a common set of facts, different media outlets often tell very different stories emphasizing different angles and aspects of the story. There’s a lot of nuance here. And while I certainly worry about an erosion of truth, I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100% true.”
Zuckerberg goes on to make his case that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are doing and saying and what he feels are the issues are with banning certain types of ads. Based on what Herbst has to say, many of these ads and what political elites are posting are pieces of this puzzle of sorts that make up public opinion. Is our government regulating public opinion if they begin to regulate information Facebook and companies like it are allowed to let their users post?
The recent congressional hearing, that was scheduled to be and “Examination of Facebook and its Impact on the Financial Services and Housing Sectors” veered off course and grilled Zuckerberg on some of the policies Zuckerberg announced in his Georgetown speech. Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, among many other topics, asks hypothetical questions about the ability of politicians to advertise the incorrect voting day in certain neighborhoods—okay, maybe this alludes to possible housing sector issues that Facebook has been under fire for in the past regarding equal opportunity housing and how it was only advertising housing to certain neighborhoods with specific demographics. Congressman Barr goes into this:
BARR: Will you commit that FB will not censor any political ad placed on your platform or in support of President Donald Trump?
MZ: My commitment on this is that—or the principle at least here is that we believe people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying. That doesn’t just go for Trump, that goes for any of the candidates for any of our national offices. People need to see for themselves and make judgements on what the candidates are saying and their character.
Social media are rapidly becoming a highly researched area—especially with the idea of the social construction of public opinion. As McGregor conceptualizes, it’s the elites, like the political professionals and journalists, that transmit ideas—often through a social outlet and about the data that came from it.
I’d like to push a bit further—where do we place Facebook as an elite entity that reflects, imposes and molds public opinion? Where does government regulation fall in Herbst’s idea of social construction of public opinion? Of course, we have to understand social media users are not representative of the general American public. But the power Facebook seems to have and the impact it has on the global society seems to show that it still seems be on a pedestal, possibly even above our elected officials as the most elite. As a private institution, that is a public sounding board for so many, where does this data fall in for the measurement of public opinion? This data is consistently reported by news media to justify or discredit certain political moves in Washington, DC.
I could go on with even bigger questions about our society—Mark Zuckerberg implies people can make sense of the mass amount of information that they are exposed to—that the average citizen is able to decide what is accurate or inaccurate information. But this will have to be addressed at a later date. I hope this pseudo-podcast gets you thinking about the possible regulations that may or may not be imposed and what it means for the current state of information flow in daily-life and public opinion.
Herbst, Susan. 1998. Reading Public Opinion: How Political Actors View the Democratic Process. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.