Facebook has decided to halt its “Common Grounds” project, designed to promote civil political discussion on the platform.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook conducted research and discussion on an idea of encouraging positive political discussions. However, after strong opposition from the global head of policy, the idea is dead (and, frankly, so is civil discourse, it seems). It appears Facebook was afraid of being accused of bias against American Conservatives.
Facebook’s Common Ground Project was meant to host a hostility-free environment for users to participate in political discussions. It was meant to exist alongside efforts to make Facebook a less toxic place, including the optimization of News Feed to highlight posts with more comments, shares, and likes, as well as the algorithms that would eventually bury “hateful” comments. This, according to Facebook, would give a healthy boost to the political discussions between people with different ideologies.
However, the global policy head of Facebook, Joel Kaplan (who is also a former White House aide) had some serious objections. He raised the concern that de-emphasizing certain comments could lead to the silencing of some users on Facebook. Kaplan, along with other executives, raised the point that downplaying certain negative Conservative comments can create a one-sided view of political conversations. Instead of creating a constructive, and productive discussion board, the platform would probably end up polarizing its users even more. This concern raised by Kaplan led the company to halt their development, even after conducting extensive research on the feature.
The Wall Street Journal also reported that a spokeswoman for Facebook highlighted the fact that the company needs to acknowledge diverse views since they have created a platform that needs to serve everyone equally. Downplaying certain comments would negate the idea of giving equal importance to all voices, no matter how negative they are.
However, in an effort to avoid bias, Facebook itself looks a little biased. Do we allow negative or hate speech just because it might represent the views held by a certain political party?
Also, Mr. Kaplan has been under some serious criticism in the past few weeks for supporting his friend Brett Kavanaugh as a Conservative nominee to the US Supreme Court, despite allegations of sexual misconduct. Facebook employees considered this an endorsement from Facebook in favor of Kavanaugh and were less than happy.
People have also assumed that the decision to kill off Common Grounds was made to placate political figures who have accused Facebook of being biased against conservative voices in the past.
Of course, recent research shows that sharing political opinions on platforms like Facebook does little if anything to change people’s minds. Discussions only end up provoking people and leading to more negative interaction online.
At this point, it’s hard to tell what might be the right way forward in encouraging people to be more civil when discussing politics.