In a NY Times Op-ed, Edsall warns that democracy is weakening right in front of our eyes, and more specifically, right on our screens. The age of techno-pessimism is here and here to be heard. Drawing from professors and experts all over the country, the reader is left with a sense that social media is not simply a space that purveys ideas, but rather an amalgamation of platforms that amplifies and expedites the “epistemic crisis,” of accepting disguised truths at face value. While a mass flow of information is conducive to the foundations of a democracy, the implications of social media today show the opposite.
Seymour Lipset has outlined that there are two important social requisites for a democracy to function properly: economic development and legitimacy. Since legitimacy is most threatened by social media, this is what we will focus on. In a democracy, there needs to be a constant rotation of power, recognized by a flow of “ins” and “outs” to demonstrate a peaceful play of power. Since a democracy is grounded on facilitating the perpetuation of an effective opposition, the recognition of legitimacy in winning cannot be compromised. If citizens lose faith in the legitimacy of the functions of government, particularly in elections, there will be a lack of trust that damages the sanction of participation. This is critical because in order for the government to be responsive to the preferences of its voters, the eligible voters need to believe that their vote is efficacious. Lispet claims that cleavages driven by mass polarization can be solved through the implementation of cross-cutting affiliations.
A utopian view of social media proliferates an unapologetically democratic promise: a place of empowerment for those who have suffered from structural inequality to voice their concerns. For example, this can be seen in some examples of Cancel Culture, where those in power are “called out” for behavior that proliferates systemic inequalities such as racism and sexism. However, this very democratic premise social media follows is the source of its downfall. Social media provides endless environments that are conducive to “radicalization and mobilization.” If you want an example of this, simply look to Facebook. A PIRUS data set found that Facebook was the leading platform for extremist use. The anonymity of the internet is conducive to these polarizing views and conspiracy theories because there is a lack of accountability on the user. The claims of mass voter fraud Trump espoused in the last election were echoed on media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, where #StopTheSteal “garnered more than 70,000,000 engagements on different platforms; more than 43.5 million of those engagements were registered in December 2020 alone.” This radicalization can even occur on encrypted platforms such as Telegram and Kik. While there is space on the platform for those who wish to educate, grow, and learn, there is equal, if not more room, for information that carries the ability to undermine a democracy.
The platforms of social media are putatively neutral. However, it is clear that social media is inherently divisive. Users heavily rely on political news on these platforms. The skew of demographics within each site shows that this process simply enhances existing inequalities and divisions. Robert Frank, professor at Cornell, observes that similar to seeing ads of products you just bought, this mechanism can be used and is being used to erode political and social stability. Algorithms on sites are curated directly towards the individual based on their preferences to maximize the amount of time spent online. Frank explicates this addictive algorithm by showing the negative impacts. He asserts that this “drives earnings, and hate speech, lies and conspiracy theories [that then] reliably [re]boost the addiction.” These posts that are based on a person’s “preferences” are dangerous because they easily lead users into political echo chambers. This not only reinforces the person’s views because there is no obvious need to fact-check something you believe, it also increases polarization. When a person is removed from their echo chamber, they are exposed to other views that threaten their sense of the “status quo.” Politics act as a facet of individual identity, and when one accepts information as truth, the “other side of politics” seems like a personal attack.
We have found ourselves in a Catch-22. By remaining in these echo chambers, we fail to deal with these cleavages in our society. By leaving these echo chambers, we are faced with increased polarization because of our attachment to identity politics. This is not a new phenomena, but the rapid rate that this is exacerbated on social media is. These echo chambers counteract what Lipset argues a democracy needs: cross-cutting affiliations. We often associate with people that have the same views, but when this occurs on a massive scale, the division in politics undermines democracy as a whole.
While we may be entering into an age of techno-pessimism, it is important to recognize that the individual has the power in this situation for two main reasons. The first being that the way digital practices will alter will be by the hand of public pressure. It is up to the collectivization of the public to transform the way American politics incorporate social media platforms. As Robert Dahl argues, one of the triumphs of democracy rests on the responsiveness to the preferences of its citizens, not as the minorities, but as equals. Secondly, we must hold ourselves accountable to actively pursue the truth as opposed to seeking what is convenient, comfortable, and consonant with our worldview and identity. Democracy will only weaken insofar as its citizens remain unaware of this “epistemic crisis.”