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?
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