Social media, across the globe, has made it significantly easier for people to voice their political opinion, discuss issues that plague the society, cause an uproar around causes that matter, and hold the decision-makers accountable. After playing a crucial role during the Arab Spring, an anti-government uprising in the Middle East against the oppressive regimes, it was quickly heralded as the preferred technology medium for liberation.
According to the growing evidence in favor of civic engagement, when people, especially the youth, use social media to discuss the news, they are more likely to indulge in community building activities, like volunteering and voter registration. However, a Pew Research Center study also found that smartphones and web applications are primarily responsible for the ever-widening partisan divide between different political groups.
In an interview with the BBC broadcast, Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, warned the masses about the ‘different realities’ of being online and the perils of divisive social media use. While he’d in favour of harnessing technology to encourage “multiplicity of voices, and diversity of views,” to find common ground, he warns against content that actively feeds into the current biases most users have. For example, an Australian news story falsely claimed that Anne Ally, the first Muslim woman to be appointed as the MP, refused to lay a wreath on Anzac Day. As the unsubstantiated allegation gained traction and became widely accepted as the alternative truth, hordes of people flooded to Ally’s Facebook to leave racist and sexist remarks.
To make matters even worse, oftentimes, it’s the government authorities themselves who use social media to engage in or instigate harassment of individuals. Last year, Kishorechandra Wangkhem, an Imphal-based cable network employee was arrested for publicly criticising the local government on his Facebook. In posts that were deemed ‘inflammatory’ and ‘unconstitutional’ by the police, he was accused of attempting to “excite disaffection towards the government”.
With more countries criminalizing online discourse, there’s now a greater risk of government officials using their position of power to intimidate critics and deter the common man from exercising their right to free speech.
In the 2016 U.S. election, Russian entities set up fake Facebook pages and created 80,000 posts to influence public sentiment. In the most well-known case of cyberwar, social media was used as an information weapon to divide the American masses.
Without verified transparency, micro-targeting makes way for misleading political campaigns that encourage a virulent discourse without any positive outcome. Ultimately, democracy suffers because foreign interference makes it harder for people to hold leaders accountable for their own words.
Creation of Echo Chambers
According to a recent Reuters’ report, 44% of people who use social media to follow the news encounter stories from both the right and the left, however, the important question is —how do they respond when presented with differing viewpoints? Do they listen, ignore, or go as far as to block them?
As sentient beings, we’re naturally wired to seek out data that validates our personal beliefs. A phenomenon that the social scientists call confirmation bias, most social media users reject information that undermines their preferred narrative. Therefore, while micro-blogging platforms like Facebook and Twitter introduced us to a more diverse range of opinions, contending with congenital human instincts can be hard and can further drive people apart.
Apart from foreign meddling, hate speech and misinformation making headlines, social media can also extensively distort a policymaker’s judgment of the public opinion. Most social media platforms have users from different walks of life, but not all of them are represented equally in public political dialogue.
Facebook predicts that almost 87% of government bodies around the world have a social media presence, which they actively utilize for listening and responding to their constituents. If politicians and other decision-making bodies mistake the opinions of a few with the opinions of the many, the best interests of the vulnerable populace and minorities take the backseat.
With the fringe groups gaining more mainstream attention, the convergence of democracy and social might not seem like a good idea after all. For example, the organizers of the infamous white nationalist rally in Charlottesville used social media groups and pages to increase their attendance. In a statement to Newsweek, Facebook admitted to using a combination of technology and human involvement to “root out extremist content and hate organizations from [their] platform”.
If there’s one fundamental truth about social media’s impact on democracy it’s that it amplifies human intent — both good and bad.
As social media unleashes a new wave of latent civic energy, by making it easy for people to voice their opinion or connect with a local representative, we’re now faced with the challenge of putting power into the right hands. Regardless, we must remember the fundamental truth about the impact of social media on governance and democracy: It amplifies both positive and negative human intent. As a result, we have the moral duty to learn more about how social media communities affect political discourse, and ensure that they’re as reliable, approachable and representative as possible.