Policy, Journalism, and Facebook

I loved using Facebook. I was one of the early adopters of the social media platform, internationally anyhow. I remember playing “Pirates” and engaging in high-school gossip virtually. And once in a while, message someone. That’s pretty much it. Now, I’ve stopped playing silly games online and no longer in high-school. I can remember the last personal post I’d made and I now prefer to share my life via stories rather than albums.

I still go on Facebook every day, but barely spend 2 minutes on it.Maybe I’ve just grown up, but Facebook isn’t exciting anymore. My friends feel the same way. Teenagers prefer Snapchat and Instagram to Facebook, and WhatsApp has taken over our conversations.

Facebook is far from being Myspace or Orkut. It’s one of the most valuable companies in the world and has expanded its presence beyond its core social media website. I, however, do think that Facebook can engage its users better. Consumer preferences change rapidly, but Facebook has not been able to keep up.

Update as of 02/24: I think even Mark might agree with my assessment to some extent, and that’s why Facebook decided to alter its mission statement. To that effect, I think Facebook should build a platform that allows for a more engaged community: socially, politically, and intellectually. I rather discuss politics, social issues, and ideas than care about what my old classmate did last night (it’s never pretty).

Crowdsourcing Policy

From some time, I’ve been incubating the idea of crowdsourcing policy. I was inspired by a TED Talk on Nuclear weapons. I had no idea that the nuclear weapons had become so commonplace and how the world can become a better place if governments spend on solving poverty instead of ammunition. I realized that I’ve had limited knowledge about the various issues around the world, and this holds true for pretty much everyone. Collectively, we can learn about the pressing needs at a global level and find creative solutions to solving them.

Crowdsourcing policy isn’t a novel idea, but I’ve barely seen any online posts on it and therefore, felt compelled to discuss this topic in some detail and how Facebook can be the lever of change. There are localized websites that are building this capability, but I truly believe that this idea needs to take place at scale through one forum.

What is it?

Policy is one area that has never been hit by the disruption wave. Current policies are archaic and energetic policymakers are stuck in the bureaucratic rigmarole to actually accomplish anything profound. Crowdsourcing policy is an idea where members of a community can share specific policy and social issues in an open, non-judgemental manner and find innovative solutions that benefit everyone. It fosters a secure place where individuals can share their experiences and work with their neighbors to solve that problem. The focus isn’t to engage in community gossip, but more to inform and solve on local, national and global issues.

Why is it important?

Almost every person who is using some sort of social platform has lost touch with his/her community. Flooded with cat videos, memes, and fake news, an individual is unable to discern what’s real and what’s not.

At work, we are often prohibited from engaged in political discussions. Politics becomes a subject of ridicule, discrimination, and judgment. Team members should be able to discuss the latest in Trump Administration without being ridiculed for their opinions. Employees should be promoted on their work ethic and performance, rather than whom they voted for. Democracy is only sustainable when people participate.

The influx of fake news polarizes opinions and uninformed individuals are often taken advantage of. An informed community helps keep the organizations (governments, corporations, and non-profit institutions) in check; limiting corruption. People need to see the whole picture, rather than one individual’s perspective. They should be able to think transparently about a particular topic and this can only happen when they are made aware of the issues.

Sensationalization of certain topics often undermines the importance of equally relevant topics. Lara Setrakian, a former journalist for ABC News who covered the Iraq war, discussed in her TED Talk how sensationalist stories made highly important issues invisible to us. Inundated with these stories, she realized that an unbiased coverage of all issues would have helped the world foresee the rise of ISIS in Iraq or the war in Syria. Her website, News Deeply, serves as a hub for in-depth information and analysis of key issues to cut through the noise and provide valuable insight through high-quality journalism. This website serves as a good starting point for someone who wants to explore this space in greater detail.

“The quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply entwined” – Bill Moyers, American Journalist and Political Commentator

My parents often share their stories where they engaged in political discourse after watching the news. At the workplace, they would engage in an honest and non-judgemental discussion about the latest policies or crisis and then think about a possible solution. They complained that they never had a platform to share these opinions and drive real change, but we have that now and aren’t using it. We limit political discussions in office and isolate members who are vocal about a certain issue.

What does it look like?

It makes sense to think about what this platform would look like and I’d like to demonstrate this by using an example. I’ll barely scratch the surface on the technical details but my suggestions would help paint a picture on what it should look like.

The second amendment has been a source of dispute and controversy for as long as I can remember. It is usually discussed by a handful of individuals. Politicians, lobbyists, and reporters discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this law in great detail but fail to really understand what the masses want. Politicians believe what they think their constituents want, reporters polarize the law based on their opinion and lobbyists sway policy decisions through monetary means to fulfill their own goals.

The platform would simply lay out the facts of the “right to bear arms” and allow individuals to share their ideas on what should be changed/not changed. Popular opinions get ‘upvoted’ and policymakers have a more realistic view of what exactly the community needs. In this scenario, only US Citizens or certain concern parties would be able to make recommendations, but all users would be allowed to read and inform themselves about the situation. Similarly, the conflict in Kashmir should be openly discussed by Indian citizens and Pakistani citizens. Discussions should be monitored to prohibit threats to individuals  (using AI and data science). Monitoring of these issues would be done through international organizations like United Nations, WHO, etc. as well Facebook’s internal team.

Therefore, policies will be categorized geographically and layered at a city, state, national and international level. They will be further categorized by subject area to keep the discussions and knowledge base organized. Policies like the second amendment would only be discussed in the USA, whereas nuclear warheads is a policy that can be discussed at a global level.

To prevent polarization of views based on a certain individual, no particular individual will be tagged as a top contributor and everyone’s opinion must be shared with the same importance. Even if the idea isn’t a healthy one, it should be debated with facts. No one should be able to pay for their post to be the most popular vote, and if that means that all posts need to kept anonymous then so be it. Giving credit to individuals is not what this platform should focus on.

In a voting scenario, citizens should be able to quickly understand the political stance of a certain candidate on a variety of issues that affect them.The current law should be stated as a fact that is easy to understand, and then each section of the policy should be discussed on its merits and failures. This could literally mean discussions about each and every section of a particular policy.

Why Facebook?

Everyone wants to be an entrepreneur and build their own company, and I fall under the same bracket. I kindled with the idea of starting my own website to enable this interaction but realized that it would take me an unfathomable amount of money to attract users and create anything of value. It would also take me a significant amount of time to build the basic infrastructure to facilitate such interaction, whereas Facebook already has an advanced version that enables its social media platform. Lastly, it would take me months if not years to deliver any significant impact that Facebook can deliver through its 1.9B users at a much rapid pace.

Facebook, as an organization, will hugely benefit from such an initiative. Capitalistically speaking, engaging more people on the Facebook platform for longer time periods will help drive revenue.It can raise the price of its banner ads if more people are actively and continuously using the product. Facebook becomes a medium for change and its brand value increases. It can build its capabilities as new opportunities in civic-engagement arise.

The challenge

There are various challenges that would need to be addressed as this platform takes shape. Some of them are:

  1. Discrimination: Political views have become a source of discrimination at the workplace. There have been instances where supporters of Trump are discriminated against or fired for their political beliefs. The same applies to supporters of Clinton.
  2. Terrorism: With more civic engagement, terrorist groups may use the platform to their advantage for recruitment purposes. Terrorist groups are adept at online recruitment, and it is imperative to quickly remove any terrorist activities.
  3. Facebook’s Responsibility: With this responsibility, Facebook will face operational challenges as its scales a complex platform. Even a small and unregulated discourse could result in cyberbullying, or polarization at scale. They need to be highly effective and mitigate any risk of failure and this is a significant challenge to overcome. Facebook’s monitoring team should work unbiasedly and not let their personal ideologies influence how they regulate the platform.

My eventual hope

I’m an idealist and I often hear that the world is not that simple and transparent. Well, it can be if the majority of the population forces it to be. As I see it, this initiative will help organizations, policymakers, and citizens to build their knowledge base and find creative solutions to tackle policy and social issues.

Eventually, I would hope that the platform works to inform and solve the most pressing issues in healthcare, education, environment and culture. If everyone becomes keenly aware of the healthcare problems in Africa, there wouldn’t be any in a few years. There is potential to make an impact at an unprecedented scale and make societies habitable and safe.

At an individual level, citizens will have a sense of belonging to their community and lead happier lives. They will derive satisfaction from being part of something bigger and see their ideas take shape at a global level.

The platform can later be expanded to facilitate learning. If I want to learn about healthcare problems in India, I can quickly go to the relevant page and learn everything that there is to know. A wealth of information would be organized for me at my fingertips and Facebook can become a “polipedia”.

I realize that this topic is far too vast for me to cover in this blog post and I haven’t covered everything that I would like for the sake of length. My only hope is that I’ve been able to share a viewpoint and ideas on something that is much needed in today’s broken news industry. My ideas may be flawed and incomplete and would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.


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