It’s now becoming increasingly apparent that some fundamental principles underlying democracy, trust, informed dialogue, a shared sense of reality, mutual consent and participation are being put to the test by specific attributes and features of social media.
Today social media encompasses a massive scale as these platforms are pervasive, thoroughly and efficiently integrated into the public discourse and the lives of individuals.
The reach of social media
For instance, Facebook owned platforms already reach 86% of internet users aged between 16 to 64 in 33 countries, and this acts as their main gateway to the internet. Thus, Facebook is becoming the world’s most significant news source.
Social media not long ago held-out the promise of a more enlightened politics, as accurate information and effortless communication, helped people drive out corruption and lie. People used it to share good willed stories or even as an avenue for fund raising for courses.
Contrary to that, Facebook acknowledged that 146 million users might have seen Russian misinformation on its platform. This was before and after last year’s American election. The early optimism about social media’s potential for democratizing access to information and giving voice to those who were traditionally marginalized quickly started to deminish.
Manipulation by social media
Earlier this month, the Omidyar Network and the Democracy Fund released a report examining six major issues that are presented by social media participation and manipulation.
The paper was inspired by the current instability in democracies caused by increasing political polarization among others.
These six core issues are the ones that will be at the center of discussion. They include:
1. Spread of false and misleading information
In today’s society, social media acts as an accelerant, and an at-scale content platform and distribution channel, that is for both “isd”-information, the deliberate creation and sharing of false information, and “iscm”-information which is the inadvertent sharing of false information.
These two types of information are created and relayed by both state and private actors through the use of bots in many cases. This poses multiple threats to public dialogue as it causes lack of quorum on what constitutes truth, facts, and evidence.
2. Manipulation by “populist” leaders, governments and fringe actors
These platforms are used by “populist” leaders aided by trolls or even “hackers for hire” plus bots on open networks such as Twitter.
Some seek to directly communicate through this and in doing such subvert established protocol, marginalize minority voices, normalize hateful views, project soft power across borders among many others.
They are not the only culprits as such activity is now acknowledged by governments of democratic countries as well.
3.Personal data capture and targeted messaging/advertising
These platforms have become a preferred channel for advertising. The monetization model not only drives businesses reliant on the capture and manipulation of user data and attention, but also widens the gap between the interests of publishers and journalists and erodes traditional news organizations’ revenues leaving news organizations financially depleted.
4.Conversion of popularity into legitimacy
The public square is overwhelmed with multiple conflicting assertions as algorithms behind social media platforms converting popularity into legality. Additionally, some platforms assume the user intentions, thus conflating this with interest through features such as auto-fill search terms.
5. Disruption of the public square
Some platforms have user policies and features that enable unintended consequences like hate speech, terrorist appeals, and sexual and racial harassment causing uncivil debate. This causes members of target groups to opt out of participating in public discourse.
6. Echo chambers, polarization, and hyper-partisanship
Social media platform design, combined with the proliferation of partisan media in traditional channels has caused political divisions and polarization. Some of its algorithms had reinforced sections and created echo chambers that promote biased views over time.
There are many reasons to think that social media may indeed threaten democracy, but social media in itself is a form of democracy. It is up to all of us to use it wisely and to the benefit of all humankind.