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.
Social media has brought about many changes not only to our daily lives, but to some extent how our government officials function as well. The algorithms which make up these different platforms curate a space which feeds into extremism. It creates an echo chamber for like-minded individuals to connect with each other and further indoctrinate each other with propaganda. It is interesting to see how previously, social media positively impacted social movements specifically the Arab Spring. It has also been used during protests like in Hong Kong and just this summer during the BLM protests to communicate and coordinate with people around the country. However, it is recently coming out that activism on social media, coined as “performative activism” does not translate to in-person activists. This can be seen in the Israel-Palestine conflict, an activist recently remarked that they cannot trust online numbers because the fire and passion for the movement dwindles when it comes to being on the ground protesting. Along with that many agencies are able to infiltrate chat rooms and sabotage plans. Social media is evolving and it is no longer the safe space people may have thought it was. I think social media companies need to take a larger role in eliminating trolls and stopping the spread of misinformation. They are allowing extremist behavior to continue and should take more accountability for it.
I agree with the statements you are making. Social media, ironically created with the intent of unifying and connecting people from across the world, has become detrimental to the quality of democracy, especially in the United States. Because of the algorithm behind social media, people with shared values and ideals are brought together, creating a community of like-minded people. While others argue that this can be a good thing to help society further progress towards an innovative future, they must recognize that it plays a significant, damaging role in expediting the process of democratic erosion.
As you mentioned, conflict and civil discourse are vital to the health of democracy. As Schmitter argued in “What Democracy Is and Is Not,” through conflict, politicians can find solutions to answer the people’s needs. He writes, “Democracies have the capacity to modify their rules and institutions consensually in response to changing circumstances.” However, unlike conflict over social media, the conflict within democracy is, as you said, channeled through political institutions and norms. On the other hand, social media has allowed for negative conflict that, rather than seeking to find a solution and upkeep the principles of democracy, increases polarization and incubates a “them vs. us” perspective.
I liked your point that social media provides a voice for people who do not fit in with the “real” world or people who feel they are not heard or belong. I want to add to your point by explaining how these people might feel like they do not belong or like they are left out of the government they belong to. Populists prey on the growing dissatisfaction people have with the current government, usually rooted in inequalities or deep cleavages in society (such as inequality of wealth, racial inequality, educational inequality, etc.). As Lipset argues in “Some Requisites for Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” this dissatisfaction threatens the government’s legitimacy and causes people to be open to other forms of government or ideas differing from their current political institution. This is what populists prey on. They see this as their opportunity to gain die-hard supporters and name themselves as the only possible solution to the problem. Through social media, populist parties voice their political stances, views, and values. As Mounk states in “Pitchfork Politics: Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy,” populists share their “core concerns, expressed in a language of outrage against the status quo and the political elites who maintain it.” By stating their views, they attract those feeling like “they don’t fit in.” With the power of social media’s algorithm to bring people of similar values together, they create a community of similar-minded, populist persuaded people. They create a thriving community for these people through social media, basically recruiting and incubating an assembly of supporters.
Frances E. Lee writes about how social media directly affects the election process: “By reducing communication costs, online digital communications have increased the capacity for insurgent political actors to find an audience and disseminate their messages. Social media allow even backbench members of Congress to gather a national following with relative ease and at virtually no cost.” Social media is a free resource that anyone can access, so long as they have internet or access to the internet. As you said, millions of individuals check their social media accounts every day, being exposed to and even like posts or follow accounts that share/promote undemocratic ideals posted by populists or people with an undemocratic agenda- causing these people to gain a large following. Lee goes on to say that “… Social media platforms open up new possibilities for political fundraising. New media facilitate the cross-national diffusion of ideas, allowing political entrepreneurs to adopt successful frames, appeals, arguments, and strategies across national boundaries.” Exposing people on social media to the ideals of these undemocratic people provides them with the opportunity of political fundraising. By appealing to people worldwide through posts, they can attract people who want to support their cause, even financially. Lee continues his argument, noting how “low barriers to entry afford greater relative value to insurgents and populists than to mainstream or establishment candidates… developments that reduce communication and fundraising costs make it easier for political players to compete. Changes in communications technology stand to increase the supply of populist challengers to establishment parties in the United States.” Social media allows for these low barriers to entry. Populists can gain more followers than ever- therefore gaining more voters, allowing them to proceed through electoral processes with ease like never before- as we have seen in the past with Trump, as you have mentioned.
As you said, social media has the power to provide information and shed light on topics that people are passionate about or are interested in. However, when these topics are in the interest of antidemocratic values, social media proves to be detrimental to the health and well-being of democracy, further eroding democracy as we know it.