Leading into the beginning of the nineteenth century, as author Norberto Bobbio writes in his book “Democracy and Dictatorship”, the idea of democracy shifted from mob rule to mean the right of the people to participate in the determination of the collective will through elected representatives. This shift in the understanding of democracy triggered the form of government we are used to today: representative democracy.
In our modern society, to say social media is commonplace would be a joke. Everyone with a heartbeat and an internet connection is on at least one social media platform. We post on it, we scroll through it, we laugh, we get angry, and most of us can’t remember life without it. However, how do these addictive apps affect our communities and our societies?
Let's take a look at how social media may harm the democratic institutions that we hold in such high regard. Furthermore, an individual’s consumption of information from their social media network and peers can lead to a false perception that it is a consensus representation of the overall population, which may not be the case.
In my opinion, up to the point that these algorithms were being used to advertise products and services did not seem problematic, but the trouble began when news and opinions were being force-fed in the same way. Hundreds of articles, reports, thought pieces are published online by the minute, in different languages, targeting almost every type of person there can be. Not only is there an overload of information, but an overload of false information.
No person or organization can check and verify all of this information and so why would anyone report any of the truth? This has led to a great battle between minor news outlets, radical political newspapers, and even individuals for your attention and your agreement. At this point, the “winner” of these misinformation wars is not who has the most accurate information, it is who can collect clicks the fastest. This is why there are still flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, and other conspiracy theorists. As someone somewhere was able to convince these people to believe a lie.
It becomes worse because of a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. People like to hear, read, and see things that align with what they already believe and think. Which is amplified by a social media algorithm that is designed to show the user more of what they have already been exposed to and liked. In other words, creating an "echo chamber" where your thoughts are constantly reinforced by robots trying to keep you on Instagram by telling you how smart you are. A good visual of how deep this information polarization goes is shown in the Wall Street Journal project “Red Feed, Blue Feed”. As explained on the web page, if a source appears in the red feed, a majority of the articles shared from the source were classified as “very conservatively aligned”. For the blue feed, a majority of each source’s articles aligned “very liberal.” To add to this information bubble, distorted news and actual fake news found their way into users’ social media feeds, and since this fake news already serves to confirm a person's existing bias, people were a lot less likely to fact-check and verify.
An unregulated internet allows anyone, of various interests and agendas, to reach out to individuals and indoctrinate them, using decentralized media operations and flooding feeds with so much news that fact-checking each on your own would just be a waste of your time. For example, on 4chan an anonymous forum website famous for some of the largest hoaxes in internet history, users have created a code to freely engage in hate speech. They have also found ways to disrupt peaceful protestors. For instance, in the case of Shia LaBeouf’s live stream project, 4chan users posted their live streams of them disrupting the gatherings.
As the biggest unregulated medium of expression, content creation, and information sharing, social media looks like a looming threat for democratic governments. All because of a business model that prioritizes clicks to attract hits and user traffic at whatever cost, even if they have to lie to do it.
At the end of the day though, let's not forget the potential of the media. Just like the Albanian case and the Black Lives Matter movement, social media allows everyone to share their views, their stories, and counter hateful narratives. Social media only erodes democracy through improper use. It is a tool and its morality depends on the user. The issue is not about whether social media enhances or erodes democracy. It has the potential to do both. What remains to be done is figure out how to push for use of social media in a way that enhances the democratic principles the free world is built on.