We live in a world where democracy seems to be wavering and polarization intensifying with each passing moment. What role do large social media companies have in aiding this divide or perhaps helping it? Our species is more connected than ever because of such rapid developments in our technology; the internet allows anyone with a connection to spread their ideas and to be exposed to the ideas of others. Certainly, good things are bound to come from the use of these tools, but what happens when hate groups and bigots use these apps to organize and spread propaganda? And what responsibility do these corporations have to make sure their platforms are not being used to harm others?
In 2011, citizens from various nations from the Arab world, namely Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain, organized “a series of pro-democracy uprisings” which “ultimately resulted in regime changes in” the aforementioned countries. Regime changes are a natural part of our shared global political history, but with the advent of social media the people have been able to organize, share ideas, and debate unlike at any point in history. This is particularly evident in the events of the Arab Spring, where “[p]eople who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action.” So social media clearly allows for pro-democracy messages can be propagated and concrete action can be taken in the goal of shaping our countries to be more democratic. But what are the effects when social media is abused to anti-democratic or just plain violent ends?
In India of this year, a Facebook subsidiary known as WhatsApp was used as a tool of mob “justice” where 22 people were arrested for beating a group of men suspected of kidnapping children, though there was no evidence to support such allegations. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident as “At least 17 others have allegedly been killed in India over” similarly unproven accusations; this phenomenon represents a dangerous deviations from ideals of strong democratic societies where innocent people lose their lives because mob rule is not a due-process make. Use of social media to subvert democratic norms and cause harm is not limited to India, however. It has happened in the United States and the U.K. among other nations as well, where lies and disinformation are spread for political goals.
In 2016, the United Kingdom held a referendum where citizens voted to voice their opinion on whether the U.K. should leave the European Union, known as “Brexit”. An analysis of the Brexit referendum found that there were “twice as many Brexit supporters on Instagram, but they were also five times more active than Remain activists,” and similar things were true of Facebook and Twitter, where emotionally charged arguments were found to be more effective than fact based rational arguments. Barrera, Guriev, Henry, and Zhuravskaya show in their paper on motivated reasoning that facts are less helpful in changing people’s views than one might think, saying that “fact checking is completely ineffective in undoing the persuasion effect of populist arguments based on alternative facts”.
In the United States presidential election of 2016, we saw how social media can be used to interfere with the democratic process itself, where there was a campaign by Russia to elevate candidate Donald Trump and candidate Hillary Clinton. This campaign involved hacking of top Democratic party officials and allegedly giving the Trump campaign information that could be used against Clinton; “[t]here is also evidence that entities connected to the Russian government were bankrolling “troll farms” that spread fake news about Clinton” on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
After the election, many white supremacist groups were energized by President Trump and his rhetoric. This was strongly evidenced by the events in Charlottesville at the “Unite the Right” rally, where a counter-protestor was killed by a white supremacist driving his car into the group of people she was in. Said rally was organized via Facebook. GoDaddy and Google have been the former host of known white supremacist news site, the Daily Stormer before eventually revoking their registration; Google owned YouTube is also a known outlet for members of hate groups to radicalize others. These outlets allow for dangerous levels and forms of ethnocentrism to fester because, as Kinder and Cam quote in their exploration of the foundations of ethnocentrism, “the ethnocentric individual feels threatened by most of the groups to which he does not have a sense of belonging; if he cannot identify, he must oppose”.
If political parties are the gatekeepers of democracy in the political realm as Levitsky and Ziblatt propose in How Democracies Die, large social media outlets also have a responsibility to limit the publicity of hate actors such as the klan, Nazis, and other white supremacist organizations. Freedom of speech is a noble goal but allowing groups to organize who history tells us will work to destroy such freedoms for everyone is dangerous. We have an obligation to stop them and to not provide them a platform.