We live in a digital world. “The use of social media has become ubiquitous, unlike before. The ease of use and constant accessibility is changing our social network and reshaping our political world” (Ariadne Vromen). In other words, it has democratized the way we access more and the diverse sources of information, consume, exchange or share it instantly. Prior to the advent of social media, the elite, the educated, the wealthy and the influential had the prerogative to avail, afford, and access information more than others. With the advance of technology, the boundary of accessibility and consumption pattern of information for common citizenry has been revolutionized with the presence and availability of social media. This has enhanced our many levels of engagement—personal, social, professional, educational, political and so on, of course with inevitable challenges, risks, perils, and dangers to digital data privacy, conventionally held societal norms, and democracy at large.
In recent months, one of the most pressing debates among many scholars cutting across various disciplines, including political and social scientists, is about social media and democracy. In this regard, questions as such prop up in mind: ‘Is social media good or bad for democracy?’ ‘What effects do social media have on democracy?’ ‘Has social media hijacked our brains? Is social media threat to democracy?’ Such questions gain greater attention in the aftermath of the effect of polarizing American politics in 2016 presidential elections involving the Russians and in the backdrop of latest data breach undertaken by Cambridge Analytica. In this short blog, I shall try to answer these questions and explicate some of the nuanced answers.
There might be a conventional assumption that the more people access diverse sources of information, democracy may flourish. As individuals feel empowered to share information and views with a mass audience with the use of rapid technologies and mass communication, which was previously available in traditional media, it is partially true that social media may be good for democracy. This is one side of the story. The other part is that social media can be detrimental to democracy as The Economist in its article “Social media’s threat to democracy,” (Nov. 14, 2017), questioned that conventional assumption and argued that social media can be harmful to democracy. “Russia’s trouble-making is only the start. From South Africa to Spain, politics is getting uglier. Part of the reason is that, by spreading untruth and outrage, corroding voters’ judgment and aggravating partisanship, social media erode the conditions for the horse-trading that Crick thought fosters liberty.”
In the light of insights of The Economist, one may feel paranoid about the pernicious effects on any country’s political phenomenon which “falls under the spell of social media manipulators” (David).
“Because people are sucked into a maelstrom of pettiness, scandal, and outrage, they lose sight of what matters to the society they share. This tends to discredit the compromises and subtleties of liberal democracy and to boost the politicians who feed off conspiracy and nativism” (The Economist).
The role of social media in electoral politics is a new arena and the literature in this field is gradually evolving. There is a possibility of danger that one may become a victim of an exaggerated view of shaping and reshaping voter behavior. The proliferation of targeted information undertaken by social media may shape public consciousness in some way; it does not necessarily argue how the public may act collectively. Information received through social media has to be processed so as to reinforce one’s pre-disposed views or reject it as it may go against one’s previously held positions. In this context, political messages in social media more often than not rely heavily on emotions and biases than reasons.
Before we delve to answer if social media is a threat to democracy, it is good to know the social media phenomenon, its mechanism and some of its cardinal principles.
“Social media and digital technologies are ‘designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities in order to direct us towards goals that may or may not align with our own,’” says James Williams, a former Google advertising executive (David Golumbia). Social media’s mechanism is to capture our attention economy on which democracy rests. Social media technologies are built in such way so as to “hijack our minds.” Social media technologies deliberately use mind hijacking minds.
How does that happen? Kahneman spoke about “Thinking, Fast and Slow” at Google in 2011. He shows the difference between so-called “System 1” and “System 2” thinking. System 2 is good old-fashioned, actual, “slow” thinking, it’s “effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious.” System 2 is the kind of rational cogitation we like to imagine we do all the time. System 1 is “fast” thinking, fight or flight, “automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious.”
Most social media like Facebook and Twitter are built on System 1. Many tech experts know how to craft media content or media products that talk to System 1 and bypass System 2. Based on this argument, we know that people constantly switch between fast and slow thinking modes on social media; people are mostly guided by the fast mode.
Social media is basically based on reactive, emotion, quick-fix part, and least reflective part of our brains that are satisfied by images and clicks that look delighting, that feed our egos, and that make us think we are heroic. It demands our attention even if we do not wish to do so. That is such type of media is effective at promoting hate, white supremacy, and public humiliation. Social media is so powerful for political propaganda that it can be used as a weapon using psychological targeting techniques.
Social media’s maneuvering and leverage “happens at the expense of the deep thinking, planning, and interaction that democratic politics are built from. This doesn’t mean reasoned debate can’t happen online; of course, it can and does. It means that there is a strong tendency—what media and technology researchers call an “affordance”—away from dispassionate debate and toward strong emotions” (David).
The basic truth about social media’s impact on democracy is that it amplifies human intent—both good and bad. It enables to connect and express ourselves and take action. It provides platforms for people to spread misinformation, disinformation and fake news, and corrode democracy. The reason is that social media platforms may not be suitable for democratic politics and healthy political engagement.
Social media platforms were not set up to be either news or political organizations, but to a great extent, that is what they have become. Thus questions arise about the responsibility to oversee and regulate them.
Ariadne Vromen says, “the digital rights agenda demonstrate that the dividing line between social media as “good” or “bad” for democracy is porous and shifting. Social media can easily become a democratic “bad” when there is a breakdown in civility, political polarization increases and targeted misinformation spreads. Inherently, however, I believe social media is not “good” for civic engagement. Whether that remains so rests in part with Facebook, Twitter and all the companies that operate these platforms, and their willingness to play a more active and transparent role in working with civil society organizations to protect the networks they created.” (See: “Is Social Media Good or Bad for Democracy?” by Ariadne Vromen, Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Sydney, January 25, 2018, https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/01/vromen-democracy/)
This answers the question whether social media is a threat to democracy.
“Are social media good for democracy? by Randy David, Philippine Daily Inquirer, November 05, 2017, http://opinion.inquirer.net/108449/social-media-good-democracy
“Social Media Has Hijacked Our Brains and Threatens Global Democracy” by David Golumbia, Jan 5, 2018, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/bjy7ez/social-media-threatens-global-democracy
“Scandal, outrage and politics: Do social media threaten democracy?” The Economist, Nov 4, 2017,
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