Thomas B. Edsall examines the extent to which social media platforms have contributed to democratic backsliding in the United States in his article, “Democracy Is Weakening Right in Front of Us”. Through research and multiple perspectives, he reveals how social media enhances polarization and thus negatively impacts democracy. Most individuals are unaware of the consequences and harmful nature social media has on democracy, and because of this, social media platforms will continuously be used to disguise the truth and allow leaders to rise to power on false claims, like Trump.
While social media is not the cause of democratic erosion in the United States, it plays a significant part in the expansion of erosion today. Democracies are founded on discourse and have visible dissent unlike in autocracies. However, that discourse is channeled by political institutions, rules, and norms that create solutions to disagreements in the most agreeable way. Unfortunately, the hope of increased civic engagement, inclusivity, and connectivity brought about by a world of technology that has allowed individuals to connect beyond borders has instead negatively impacted our democracy. Social media emphasizes the growing polarization and inequality in America today because it provides extremists with a like-minded community that empowers them to act out and destabilize the democracy. One example includes the “Unite the Right” violent protest in Charlottesville where far right extremist groups like neo-Nazis, neo-confederates, white supremacists, militia groups, antisemitic, KKK believers, and more were able to plan and carryout one of the most violent rallies in decades. Facebook groups and other platforms gave these individuals the courage they needed to publicly protest by supplying these individuals with a sense of community and allowing them to believe there were many more of them out there, which provides a level of comfort and security.
A primary factor required for any democracy is having universal or near universal inclusivity: the more inclusivity, the more stability. To be inclusive, a democracy also must be competitive in the sense that there is more than one political party with competing interests. Lipset argues cross-cutting coalitions enhance democracy and combat conflict because they increase the need for tolerance. While, the U.S. has a two-party system with smaller parties somewhat in the mix, the increasing polarization is causing democratic erosion. Social media platforms did not instigate the erosion in this country but rather accelerated and enhanced the polarization already present. Sociology professor and director of Duke University’s Polarization Lab, Christopher Bail, offers insight into targets of social media: “a key constituency is made up of those who ‘feel marginalized, lonely, or disempowered in their off-line lives’”. His research offers an explanation for this by describing how these platforms provide a voice for people that do not always fit in with the real world or feel they are heard or even belong. However they find, as Bail states, their “self-worth” through social media as they create an online identity that can easily be shaped by any other online presence and the platform’s own algorithm that “fuels status-seeking extremists, mutes moderates who think there is little to be gained by discussing politics on social media, and leaves most of us with profound misgivings about those on the other side”. From his research, Bail concluded that being exposed to views different from your own does not increase your tolerance or understanding of one another because individuals interpret this as a threat to his or her own status in society. This increases polarization by making people less likely to favor compromise and more likely to attack others for their views in order to preserve their status. Social media creates a safe space for polarization to grow and for individuals to perceive it as larger than it is in reality.
Early warning signs of backsliding include increased dissatisfaction towards the government as well as an increased lack of trust. According to the article, “the profit motive in digital media, drives policies that result in ‘the spread of misinformation, hate speech, and conspiracy theories,” and the president of Public Works LLC states, “that the best way” to increase profit “is to exploit nonrational behavior and create strong reactions rather than reasoned discourse”. Thus, digital platforms are based on the opposite idea democracies are established on: rational discourse. Every day, individuals check their Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok, and Twitter, and so they are unknowingly being exposed continuously to undemocratic ideals. It is not that these platforms are undemocratic but run by people that are going to act in their own rational self-interest and pursue profit.
Social media sheds light on the deep, unresolved issues that have been festering for a long time like race, religion, ethnicity, and more. That is one of the ways former President Trump was able to obtain power. He used Twitter and other platforms to gather support by voicing promises of simple solutions to complicated issues. He played off of digital media companies’ ways of evoking irrational emotions and their lack of concern for rational discourse. Trump’s populist agenda was made much easier to establish through Twitter, in which he was able to create his own narrative and release any story he desired with no fear of censorship. Populism is always in the background of democracies, but with the help of social media, it was able to take center stage, and Trump’s presidency severely threatened, and continues to threaten, the stability of the American democracy. Social media provides easier access and communication to the rest of the world, which has its benefits, but in cases such as this, it provides a simple opportunity for populists to create more division and seize power. America is still reeling from the impact the Trump administration has had and is struggling to correct its own backsliding. Even before his administration, extremist groups were breaking social and political norms, but social media over the years has made the few broken norms seem much more common. If norms are the glue holding America’s constitutional system together, social media is becoming the adhesive remover and is breaking the guardrails down one click at a time.