Social media has become a tool in everyday life for most people. Used as a news source, to keep track of politicians’ opinions on Twitter, or for mobilization, social media serves a multitude of functions for those wanting to be politically engaged. With the ability to garner a large audience and attention, social media has been used as a political resource to impact elections, influence social movements, and serve, or harm, democracy.
Social media can be an excellent and accessible tool globally. The utilization of social media to expand and mobilize social movements and protests is the best example of this. Images of protests in Hong Kong were spread on social media, allowing “activists from around the world to actively learn from each other and exchange tactical tips.” Protesters in Portland, Oregon began to mimic the tactics used in Hong Kong and were effective in their own efforts based on what they saw on social media.
Elections have experienced the effects of social media. Candidates have used various sites and apps to influence and impact their positions in the polls. Steven Levitsky highlighted former U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategy of using social media in How Democracies Die. Trump maximized his benefits from social media by creating controversy and gaining press coverage through his popular tweets on Twitter. The attention gained from his tweeting outbursts and outlandish comments worked in Trump’s favor, as his social media following grew and he secured the victory in the 2016 election.
Another beneficial aspect of social media is its ability to spark outrage and incite change within the people, affecting the democratic state of a country. In Egypt, a Facebook page was created by human rights activists after Khaled Said was brutally murdered by Egyptian police. The Facebook page created a community that allowed users to bond over their rage for the Mubarak government, and was the most pressing factor in inciting revolts, and the eventual overthrow of Mubarak, in Egypt. Because of social media and its ability to spread information quickly, it is incredibly important to activists, who play a role in changing the course of democracy.
While social media can serve as a beneficial tool, it also has harmful side effects that can contribute to the deterioration of a democracy. The spread of misinformation is a digital crisis as the misinformation spreads quickly and widely. Facebook is one of the biggest perpetrators of misinformation online, as they have allowed “diffusion of misinformation, disinformation and toxicity.” These oversights by social media outlets are harmful for a user on a personal scale, and also on a global scale. Regimes are able to control and censor the internet. In Tunisia, misinformation on social media platforms, like Facebook, are used by local and foreign groups to impact the erosion of democracy. Human rights actvisits are protrayed as terrorism advocates, and social media has been used by foreign actors to interfere in politics.
Facebook also aids in the demise of democracy as users on the site have significantly contributed or influenced political change in Myanmar, India, and the U.S. with the magnification of the far right’s influence. An example of this would be the role Facebook played in ignoring signs from the Stop the Steal group that facilitated the January 6 Capitol riots. Social media outlets should be held to a standard of responsibility for monitoring and filtering extremist groups and similar rhetoric instead of continuing to ignore the situation until it’s too late.
Algorithms used by social media outlets are also able to study the patterns of users. By collecting data and using machine learning, users have curated content and ads that align with what they search for or consume. This is an effort to increase engagement with the site. However, while the user may see benefits because everything they see on social media is of their interests, the lack of diversity feeds into their confirmation bias. The content that is shown by the algorithm only furthers and confirms what the user is already looking for and increases polarization and radicalization.
Governments can also use social media to their advantage to stop the rise of democracy. In Iran, social media, especially Twitter, is used as a technology warfare tactic against domestic rivals. Instead of using social media for good, Iran has turned it into a weapon that ends the democracy movement. Fake accounts, trolls, and reporting rules violations are all tactics used by Tehran — and they’ve been successful in demeaning opposers. While Facebook and other social media outlets know of Iran’s strategy, none have made an effort to end this online warfare.
Social media companies need to be working alongside international governments to sensor and tackle misinformation more diligently. A lack of technology ethics is a major factor in developing harmful effects of social media. Legislation and regulation for online communities, like on Reddit, or giving people more control of their personal data, are effective ways to start. By reforming the growing world of social media, users can become more literate with technology and politics, as misinformation will occur far less often and a proper monitoring system will be implemented.
The Platform Accountability and Transparency Act (PATA) is a bipartisan bill announced this past week that, if passed, would require social media companies to “provide vetted, independent researchers and the public with access to certain platform data.” While this bill is not a comprehensive solution to the dangers to democracy caused by social media, it is a step in the right direction. Democracies that wish to succeed and avoid backsliding or erosion need to seek reform on a legislative level. As social media and its influence rapidly grow, a failure to take urgent action will be costly for many countries and, in some cases, the citizens will feel the devastating effects more.
*Photo by Dole777 (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license.