The technology and social media that we are seeing today have made it more possible for coordinated and uncoordinated state actors to influence the minds of individuals to a greater degree, with more ease, and at a less cost than what was possible prior to their creations. This has created real, “offline” problems for democracy and democratic institutions. The Philippine 2016 presidential election illustrates how misinformation created by highly motivated propagandists disseminated through social media channels can contributes to democratic erosion.
In many ways social media enables democracy. It promotes civic engagement, renders information more accessible to the masses, connects citizens to their elected officials, grants many citizens the opportunity to have voices in government (especially individuals who have historically not been given that opportunity), and provides ways that make it easier for citizens to mobilize. However, social media also disables democracy. The claim that social media is becoming one of the greatest threats to democracy is not hyperbolic, for social media leads (and has led) to the acceleration of political polarization, the proliferation of misinformation, mass surveillance, and propaganda campaigns that shape voter’s self-determination. In sum, not only does social media have the ability to inform, mobilize (or “demobilize”), and connect voters, but it also has the means to impact voters’ consciousness.
The first time I thought about social media’s role in democratic erosion was after watching The Social Dilemma Netflix documentary. The documentary makes the case that the weaponization of social media and technology are responsible for real (“offline”), destructive, and long-term effects. The movie centers around the perspectives of former and present tech executives, researchers, technologists, and activists. Their perspectives seem to converge on the point that social media and technology are major players (if not becoming the most important player) in democratic erosion. They do not argue that social media intrinsically threatens democracy. It becomes threatening only when it is used to create, distribute, and proliferate misinformation.
The Philippine 2016 election (the election in which President Rodrigo Duterte rose to power) illustrates the way in which social media can threaten democracy. Specifically, it was the misinformation channeled and propelled through Facebook undermined Philippine’s democracy. To provide some context: in 2016, the Philippines was known as the most “social” country. With statistics reflecting that smartphones outnumber people, reports indicate that 97% of Filipinos have a Facebook account. 2016 was also the year the Philippines had their “first social media election”. The Philippines 2016 is a prime example of how social media can be weaponized in order to produce favorable results, and provides us with a dystopic prophecy of what the U.S American 2020 election might look like (or might be if you believe we are already here).
Elections have now become mediated (and subsequently determined) through social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Political candidates are turning to their “Internet troll armies” to influence voters into joining their support base. The Washington Post released an article that gathered information from interviews of internet paid trolls, “They offered a glimpse into how Philippine trolls are shaping politics in their country and possibly showing signs of things to come elsewhere,”. Essentially, these hired trolls were paid by a candidate running for the Senate of the Philippines to construct “organic messages of support” on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The aim of this was twofold: one part was to make it seem as if the candidate had a broader support base than they did in reality, hoping to influence others into giving their support. Another part was aimed at destroying the validity of critics.
Not only are these “troll farm operations” hired by candidates seeking to win political office, but they can also be weaponized by international governments (or agencies) hoping to satisfy their own self interests. This could also be seen in the Philippines 2016 election, or most notably, in the U.S’s 2016 election. The alarming question becomes, whether we see this degree of social media manipulation impacting other democratic countries. Answering in the affirmative would incite the following questions: Has social media become not only incompatible with democracy and democratic institutions, but the main culprit behind their demise? What is the mechanism that renders social media into a tool for economic erosion? Is it a quantity of information issue, is it a quality of information issue? I believe it to be both:
On the one hand, it is a quality of information issue. “Imagine a world where no one believes anything that’s true. Everyone believes the government is lying to them, everything is conspiracy theory…that’s where all of this is heading,” (The Social Dilemma, 24:39). The ease at which motivated propagandists are able to influence public opinion is remarkable. With the click of a button, things that never happened are becoming sensational, shared, liked, tweeted, DM’d, circulated, and recirculated. Both Facebook and Twitter have taken new measures to target disinformation campaigns intent on spreading misinformation on social media. However, when information can be shared, screenshotted, screen recorded, or remembered within seconds of its posting, many argue that these preventative measures will be unsuccessful. Many argue (mainly those who agree with classical democratic theorists) that in order for democracies to work, a culture predicated on truth needs to exist. If we do not have truth- we cannot have democracy.
On the other hand, however, it may not only be the quantity of information that is the problem, but the mechanisms that create the quantity of the information. To explain, information flooding may decrease user’s ability to digest information and “abandon rational decision-making”. Furthermore, the mechanisms that produce the information that we engage with on social media may play a role in polarizing us in ways that contribute to democratic erosion. “Algorithms and manipulative politicians are becoming so expert at learning how to trigger us, getting so good at creating fake news that we absorb as if it were reality…It’s as though we have less and less control over who we are and what we really believe,” (The Social Dilemma, Justin Rosenstein, 25:29). If we do not have self-determination, we cannot have democracy either. Robert A. Dahl’s “Democratization and Public Opposition” supports this claim. To him, key characteristics of democracy rests upon the ability for a government to respond to the preferences of its citizens (Dahl, 2). In order for a government to know the preferences of the citizens, the citizens in a democracy must have “unimpaired opportunities” to formulate and signify their preferences. However, misinformation does impair the ability for citizens to formulate their preferences since they are unable to do so based on a true reality.
Social media platforms and AI capabilities are becoming (perhaps at exponential rates) threats to democracies, democratic values, and citizens. Consider this: how might elections look like if social media didn’t exist. Would there be as much information…would there be as much misinformation? Would there be fewer mass protests? Less polarization? Less conflict? What line should we draw when determining the ethical consumption and interactivity of social media? When thinking about social media, it is important to consider its purpose, and its effect in many ways, social media mobilizes us towards democracy. But it also mobilizes away from democracy…the question is, to where?
Davis, Julie Hirschfeld. “Trump Lauds ‘Great Relationship’ With Duterte in Manila.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Nov. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/11/13/world/asia/trump-duterte-philippines.html?login=email.
Etter, Lauren. “How Duterte Turned Facebook Into a Weapon-With Help From Facebook.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 7 Dec. 2017, www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-12-07/how-rodrigo-duterte-turned-facebook-into-a-weapon-with-a-little-help-from-facebook.
Farrell, Henry. “Analysis | History Tells Us There Are Four Key Threats to U.S. Democracy.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 14 Aug. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/08/14/history-tells-us-there-are-four-key-threats-us-democracy/.
“The Filipino President Has Deployed a ‘Social Media Army’ to Push His Agenda.” The World from PRX, www.pri.org/stories/2017-01-10/filipino-president-has-deployed-social-media-army-push-his-agenda.
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Maresca, Thomas. “Why Trump and Duterte Hit It off. Hint: Both Presidents Are Brash.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 14 Nov. 2017, www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2017/11/13/why-trump-and-duterte-hit-off-hint-both-presidents-brash/858527001/.
Rainie, Lee, et al. “Theme 1: Things Will Stay Bad, Part I.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 31 Dec. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/internet/2017/03/29/theme-1-things-will-stay-bad-part-i/.
Shibani Mahtani, Regine Cabato. “Why Crafty Internet Trolls in the Philippines May Be Coming to a Website near You.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 29 July 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/why-crafty-internet-trolls-in-the-philippines-may-be-coming-to-a-website-near-you/2019/07/25/c5d42ee2-5c53-11e9-98d4-844088d135f2_story.html.
“Social Media and Its Impact on Philippine Elections.” The Manila Times, 4 May 2019, www.manilatimes.net/2019/05/05/business/columnists-business/social-media-and-its-impact-on-philippine-elections/549716/.
“The Social Dilemma.” Netflix Official Site, 9 Sept. 2020, www.netflix.com/title/81254224?source=35.
Story, Coda, and Lynzy Billing. “Duterte’s Troll Armies Drown out COVID-19 Dissent in the Philippines.” Rappler, Rappler, 22 July 2020, www.rappler.com/technology/features/philippine-troll-armies-coda-story.
“A Threat To Democracy? What Social Media Has Done To Us.” WAMU, WAMU 88.5 – American University Radio, 9 Dec. 2019, wamu.org/story/19/11/27/a-threat-to-democracy-what-social-media-has-done-to-us/.
Social media has a profound impact on voter turnout and democracies. The more and more our generations are being immersed into a digital age, the more easily influenced they can become by seeing ‘information’ on their timelines. People will turn to social media outlets as news sources instead of looking at the news sources our parents used to digest in the morning with a coffee. In the 2016 election, it was discovered that media outlets like Facebook were used by Russia to make over 80,000 posts that were promoted by inauthentic pages. When information like this is leaked, it makes it hard for people to have faith in anything when it comes to democracy and social media. Who or what do you believe when each source is saying something different? Social media dismantles the democratic ideology, one might even say an “erosion” to the whole system of democracy.
However, social media can still be a good thing when it comes to informing or just simply using your platform to help out. Now, especially during this election, many celebrities have used their platforms to spread the importance of voting. Aside from celebrities, many people, including myself, help clear up the gray areas of misinformation when it comes to voting. While social media can negatively impact our democracy, it can overall have a positive impact if it’s used in ways to stop the suppression of voting and to get more people involved in being politically conscious. I grew up in a space where politics weren’t discussed often and I wasn’t in a community that was heavily engaged in wanting to promote a change through policies. The use of social media has allowed me to expose others to the changes we could make to implement the type of reform we want.
If you ask me, social media and democracy can work, there is just work that needs to put in.
I agree that social media has been beneficial in providing information for voters and enabled organization. I think that it has played a crucial role in the recent civil unrest as the movement began largely on social media. Social media is unlike other news outlet in the way that information is released and received. Do you think this works in favor of the younger generations or has a detrimental effect on their trust of the media?
This issue is one that seems to be heightened in this year’s election and I think it is really important that you talked about the show that inspired you to look deeper into this issue. It is important to look at how media shapes our participation in politics whether it be through suppression, polarization, or even just questioning issues that we haven’t considered before. Media is becoming a danger to democracy because, as you said, there are users with huge fan bases and people who see their content, which can shift or shape the views of their fan base.
The issue of trolling is also extremely concerning because the internet is always going to contain misinformation whether it is from individual users or news sources. Viewers are only listening to or reading what is being said, they are not questioning the validity and biases of sources. Do you think that increasing knowledge about social media and politics could help people to think deeper about the information they are consuming? Do you think that this problem should be talked about as part of civic education?
Syd, thanks for your thoughtful post! It was engaging and succinctly covered a wide range of topics. I especially appreciated your thoughts on the interplay between a fact based society and democracy. The claim “If we do not have truth- we cannot have democracy.” Is powerful and I felt you convincingly argued for its veracity. You posed a series of fascinating questions in the last paragraph of the post and I wish that we could have heard some of your thoughts of them. Specifically, I’m interested in how you feel about twitter and facebook’s policies around flagging and removing disinformation. You make a convincing case that we need to change the unfettered spread of lies, but can private companies like these be trusted with deciding what is worthy of public consumption? Also, is it possible efforts to mediate disinformation have an adverse effect and actually facilitate its spreading. In the case of this weird story about Hunter Biden it seems like twitter’s decision to mediate the story’s spread only led to greater interest in it. Again, I really enjoyed your post and know that you didn’t have room to cover all these questions. Thanks for sharing, Syd!
This post brings up a really big issue. Social Media is a platform that can both increase people’s awareness of issues in politics and also increase the amount of misinformation that is spread. Social media platforms are also highly unregulated by the government because legislators do not understand the complexity of social media platforms. Because of this, legislators are not capable of creating legislation. Social media platforms are also not required to give every person who uses them freedom of speech. The government is the only entity that can violate a persons first amendment rights. This does already create partisan issues on the platform when some content is getting blocked and other content is not. Two things that I have seen on social media personally are “social justice warrior posts” and blanket hate posts that don’t allow for conversation. The first are sharable posts that highlight one issue that is broken down into very simple terms but is usually very one sided and often end with a proclamation of “If you don’t agree with this you hate (whatever issue is being talked about)”. The second are posts that I have been seeing at an alarmingly increasing rate is along the lines of “If you vote for Donald Trump you are not a good person and I dont want to be friends with you or have any kind of personal relationship with you”. I find this kind of rhetoric incredibly damaging because it closes the door for any sort of conversation to happen across party lines. To add to the questions in your conclusion, does social media actually prevent productive conversation between different ideologies even though it makes conversation very accessible?
Hey Sydney, I wanted to respond to your post but I also wanted to respond to one the the comments made by Greta. First, thanks for this thoughtful post I can tell its something you’ve thought about a lot. I understand the stance that social media is dangerous in regards to the misinformation that spreads on it and it definitely has increased the whole subsection of conspiracy theorists but in the age of the internet I think even without social media, there are still million sources out there with misinformation including major news networks so I think even without social media, those ideas would still flourish. I think because social media is relatively new, a lot of people like around my parents age, don’t completely understand how to navigate these sources in a way that separates the truth and lies. I think our generation understands social media in a way that following misinformation isn’t an accident, its an active choice based on party affiliation and polarization that already exists. Also I feel like social media can be scary to look at because it can seem like people are going to war at any minute but I don’t think it actually translates to how people act in person. In person, the veil of fake politeness and respect for the most part thats been there for a long time still exists.
Greta, in your comment, you mentioned posts like if you voted for “trump I’m not your friend” and how you see that as incredibly damaging because it closes the door to conversation across party lines but I think that kind of framing is what gives social media a lot of power. I don’t think social media is the place that you can have those meaningful conversations because you have people jumping in and it becomes group vs group. Also I don’t think social media is responsible for the partisan divide when it comes to posts such as “if you voted for trump I’m not your friend”. I think Trump’s racist, sexist, xenophobic rhetoric causes that divide. Maybe I just think this because I’m someone who goes on Facebook once a week just to check out the crazy and thats kind of the extent of my involvement in social media or maybe because I’m someone who in my personal life follows the “if you voted for trump I’m not your friend” idea so obviously my view in skewed in that way. Thanks for the post Sydney and for the comment Greta!