Social media has successfully accomplished its goal of making connections and spreading ideas and information. Billions of users across the globe partake in social media daily, with multiple accounts subscribed to different companies such as Instagram, Twitter, Meta, and TikTok. While some may feel that social media is a meaningless, time-consuming, unimportant aspect of our daily lives, they fail to recognize the utter devastation that social media inflicts on modern Democracy– especially within the United States. By fueling an echo chamber of radical ideals and unsatisfied community members (politically and/or socially), social media catalyzes key aspects of Democratic Erosion such as polarization, the spread of misinformation, and violence.
A recent report completed by Paul Barrett, Justin Hendrix, and J. Sims of New York University in September 2021 analyzes U.S. polarization, focusing on and emphasizing the effect of social media on the erosion of Democracy. The report states that the “use of these (social media) platforms intensifies divisiveness and thus contributes to its corrosive effects on democracy” . The article also focuses on affective polarization and how social media fuels this form of unpatriotic, dangerous partisan hostility that plagues America. The report then provides ideas on how to lessen the dangers of social media on Democracy, suggesting inter-platform policy/algorithm change and governmental interference.
This report does a beautiful job emphasizing the damaging characteristics of social media while also not giving it credit for solely causing partisan resentment and polarization among today’s U.S. citizens. Social media does not create partisan resentment but incubates and worsens already-established resentful, blaming feelings. As Iyengar and Westwood state in their study “Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization,” “The mere act of identifying with a particular group in competitive environments—no matter how trivial the basis for group assignment—is often sufficient to trigger negative evaluations of outgroups” . There is automatic dissent towards the opposing partisan group by identifying as a particular partisan group. When people and their identities join social media and “follow” people or accounts with similar perspectives, they are beginning to create an environment similar to an echo chamber. This echo chamber is filled with people who share the same feelings of dissent for the opposition and incubate these polarizing perspectives and ideals. A study at Cambridge University states that “as individuals increasingly spend their time in communities of like-minded individuals, they not only become more exposed to pro-attitudinal messages – their exposure to counter-attitudinal information decreases as well”. This nature of social media leads to the emergence of echo chambers, where citizens do not see or hear a wide range of topics or ideas, limiting their capacity to reach common ground on political issues.” While social media does not create initial partisan resentment, it is incubated by social media’s algorithm of bringing together people of similar interests and further polarization.
Polarization fosters a “them vs. us”/“ingroup vs. outgroup” perspective. Populists take this opportunity to, as Frances E. Lee says in “Populism and the American Party System: Opportunities and Constraints,” “adopt successful frames, appeals, arguments, and strategies across national boundaries”. By taking advantage of the feelings shared by the people of these ingroups, populists appeal to them by presenting themselves as the only solution to their feelings of inequality and injustice. In some cases, to gain further support for their views or desired candidate, people on social media post fake news to cause further division. Politicians have even used the weapon of “fake news” spread on social media. MIT associate dean and professor Ezra Zuckerman Sivan explains this phenomenon, writing: “Some misinformation comes from politicians — and it might help them get votes. Under certain circumstances, people appreciate a candidate who tells obvious lies, even seeing that candidate as more ‘authentic.’ A norm-breaking candidate who tells lies appeals to aggrieved constituencies because those voters see norms as illegitimately imposed by the establishment”. Not only does social media nurture and shelter communities of similar minds, but they also make them vulnerable to the sway and rhetoric of power-hungry populists who prey on their strong feelings- eroding Democracy even further.
The article also mentions how social media has become a means of mobilization of extremists- something detrimental to the state of Democracy. As aforementioned, social media creates communities of like-minded individuals. However, oftentimes these individuals have intense anger and resentment towards institutions or groups- and spread their infectious feelings of hatred with their “friends” on social media. In America, divisiveness has reached “new extremes,” where the outcomes of polarization include declining trust in fellow U.S. citizens and major institutions and erosion of democratic norms like respect for elections and loss of faith are commonly known and accepted facts. Populists validate these concerns in search of power and support, which only fuels more anger and thirst for violence. Yascha Mounk explains this in “Pitchfork Politics: Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy,” noting how populists share their “core concerns, expressed in a language of outrage against the status quo and the political elites who maintain it” . With enough individuals who feel an extreme amount of dissatisfaction and injustice, groups on social media feel that in their numbers and support on social media, they have gained justification to take action based on their feelings. An example of this would be the U.S. Insurrection on January 6, 2021. The U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs report states that “continued reports have identified that violent groups continue to operate on the platforms, and white supremacist, anti-government and conspiracy-related content and targeted ads remain on these platforms. Social media platforms were widely used by domestic terrorists to organize and plan the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol” . Not to mention, Trump outwardly supported this action via a “tweet” on the social media platform Twitter- validating their unpatriotic actions and directly influencing this historical mark of democratic erosion.
The United States, as well as the world, is facing a modern dilemma. Although social media is not solely to blame for this society full of division and conflict, it only fuels the fire engulfing Democracy. Social media is a mere echo chamber incubating like-minded individuals’ ideas, spurs users into adopting resentful partisan perspectives, spreading fake news, and inciting violence. The positives of social media fail to meet the political negatives inflicted upon society. As the authors of the NYU report suggest, there needs to be a change to stop this damage. More must be done to address the rising partisan hatred across social media. It must be discouraged—mandate transparency of social media inner workings to allow for more research and data analysis. Adjust algorithms to reduce polarization, and make these adjustments more transparent to the user community. Perhaps if this issue is more publicly recognized and addressed, it can help stop or even prevent the erosion of American Democracy.
References Baberá, P. (2020, August 24). 3 – Social Media, Echo Chambers, and Political Polarization. Cambridge University Press. 3 – Social Media, Echo Chambers, and Political Polarization  Barrett, P. M., Hendrix, J., & Sims, J. G. (2021, September). Fueling the Fire: How Social Media Intensifies U.S. Political Polarization — And What Can Be Done About It. NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b6df958f8370af3217d4178/t/613a4d4cc86b9d3810eb35aa/1631210832122/NYU+CBHR+Fueling+The+Fire_FINAL+ONLINE+REVISED+Sep7.pdf  Brown, S. (2020, October 5). MIT Sloan research about social media, misinformation, and elections. MIT Sloan. Retrieved April 4, 2022, from https://mitsloan.mit.edu/ideas-made-to-matter/mit-sloan-research-about-social-media-misinformation-and-elections  Iyengar, S., & Westwood, S. J. (2014). Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization. American Journal of Political Science, 59(3), 691-962.  Lee, Frances E. “Populism and the American Party System: Opportunities and Constraints.” Perspectives on Politics, vol. 18, no. 2, 2019, pp. 370–388., https://doi.org/10.1017/s1537592719002664.  Mounk, Yascha. “Pitchfork Politics: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 93, no. 5, 2014, p. 4., https://www.proquest.com/docview/1559077033.  U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs. (2021, September 20). Majority Media | Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee | Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee. Majority Media | Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee | Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee. Retrieved April 4, 2022, from https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/media/majority-media/as-part-of-ongoing-domestic-terrorism-and-january-6-investigations-peters-presses-top-social-media-companies-for-information-on-efforts-to-monitor-and-remove-violent-extremist-content-