Democracy has long been a contestable topic in political science. Thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau called for a democracy with massive levels of citizen participation, while others such as Max Weber were more skeptical of the common person’s ability to effectively participate in government. Though the ideal level of citizen participation will be debated into the future, there certain aspects of democracy upon which both Rousseau and Weber could agree. Democracy is fundamentally about accountability; some amount of power, perhaps minimal, perhaps maximal, lies within in the people, and it is the people who choose to keep or discard of their government officials. Thus, democracy relies upon the people’s ability to identify their interests, identify who represents their interests, and vote for said representative. The three key aspects of a healthy democracy, then, are citizen participation (to actually vote), citizen deliberation (to identify who best represents their interests), and a dependable news source (to inform the citizens and keep the government accountable). The widespread adoption of social media, however, poses a serious threat to democracy, as it has produced a populace which is less willing to go out and vote, less able to successfully deliberate, and less informed about that which truly matters.
Contrary to the supposed effectiveness of “go vote” tweets and Facebook shares, social media actually does not increase democratic participation. The empirical reality is that “social media users are not more politically engaged than nonusers” (Gayo-Avello, 14). Problematically, there does even seem to be a negative correlation between social media usage and political participation. Firstly, young people are “declining users of traditional media” (Ceron, 226). Whenever they do access traditional media, they are “more likely to do so through online editions or social media links” (Ceron, 226). Thus, young people are turning away from newspapers and magazines in favour of social media. What is interesting is that this age group specifically is “decreasingly interested in traditional forms of political participation such as supporting political parties and voting” (Ceron, 226). This growing disinterest can be attributed to young people’s increasing use of social media and subsequent abandonment of traditional media, as when one gets their news primarily from social media, which “is radically different from online and offline traditional media”, they report a “lower satisfaction with democracy” (Ceron, 229). On the other hand, “Internet users that consume news primarily from new media (e.g., websites of newspapers and magazines)” profess a much larger “satisfaction toward democracy”(Ceron, 229). Thus social media fosters a dissatisfaction with democracy which results in decreased political participation. Moreover, when young people who use social media do actually participate politically, they “tend to indulge in slacktivism”, which are “online actions performed in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, such as singing an online petition” (Gayo-Avello, 14). Petitions are certainly an important political tool, but if young people who gleefully sign petitions do not actually go out and vote (the petition that most matters) than they have skipped the single process which is most important to a democracy. Thus, social media results in a decreased satisfaction with democracy, a decreasing willingness to participate in the democratic process, and an ability to be politically fulfilled by participating in mere slacktivism.
Social media is a terrible place to go to for public deliberation. The term ‘deliberation’ calls forth images of people calmly discussing the pros and cons of their arguments, exploring the consequences of their policies, and displaying a willingness to change their opinion. The very nature of social media is antithetical to such calm, rational discussion. Firstly, short, impulsively written media posts will always be an insufficient method of communication for a topic as dense, consequential and nuanced as politics. On Twitter, insightful deliberation is greatly affected by a 280 character limit, which (as anyone using Twitter for political deliberation would know) is simply not sufficient to make a complete point. People may sometimes ‘discuss’ politics on Twitter, but when their ability to properly articulate themselves is constrained by a character limit, people often misinterpret and talk past one another. If true deliberation requires mutual understanding, than social media is simply not the place for it to happen. Secondly, the nature of social media promotes discussion that is “typically informal, frank, colloquial, humorous, satirical” and “often emotional” (Macnamara, 72). The emphasis on humour in the social media landscape, while good for satire, is bad for political deliberation, as nuanced political positions can not be reduced to simple punchlines. Perhaps Socrates, to this day the absolute personification of philosophical and political deliberation, was a funny fellow, but there are very few jokes in The Republic and the Crito. This is because topics like the ideal state and the nature of poverty cannot be properly examined through comedy. Moreover, if a social media post about politics is not trying to be funny than it is probably just angry. Social media debate “often [takes] the form of a ‘flame’ rather than that of a compromise” (Ceron, 235). When people ‘deliberate’ about politics on social media, “64% of the time” (Ceron 237) one of the participants leaves the conversation liking the other person less than they did before. Such disdain does not grow out of healthy deliberation, but out of emotional encounters with someone over a screen. Lastly, though “deliberation assumes everyone has an equal voice”, the reality is that, contrary to the pluralist egalitarianism proposed by social media optimists, social media is “actually still a very elitist form of dialogue”, because “everyone still see’s the elite tweets whilst others are largely ignored” (Gayo-Avello, 11). Moreover, elites, who garner the most attention on social media, interact “mostly with each other and rarely with non-elite users” (Gayo-Avello, 11), meaning that social media remains a top-down, elitist form of communication. Social media enables you to tweet at Donald Trump but not talk to him, and that is just not deliberation. Thus, it is merely a reality that “social media discussion of politics rarely meets the criteria of the deliberative public sphere” (Gayo-Avello, 15).
Lastly, the present nature of social media makes it a terrible news source for a functioning democracy. The tension between democracy and social media is enabled primarily because of surveillance capitalism, which is the revenue model upon which most social media sites (including the titans like Facebook and Twitter) are built. Because these services are free, they make their revenue by selling ad space and consumer data to companies. Ad space is only effective when consumers actually see said an advertisement, so the absolute most crucial variable for all free social media sites is a high TOS (Time on Site) per active user, as a high TOS means a high likelihood that said consumer will see said advertisement (Tufecki, 2007, 22). Thus, everything about social media (down to the shade of the font any platform uses) is designed to maximize TOS (Tufecki, 2007, 22). This business model, upon which social media functions, is detrimental to the proliferation of news and compromises a healthy democracy in three primary ways. Firstly, machine learning algorithms (the algorithms which determine what shows up on your newsfeed) prioritize stories with high engagement value over ones with significant public importance, as such algorithms have determined that there is a positive correlation between a high engagement value and a high TOS (Carr, 66). Stories that are likely to yield comments, likes and shares are what the algorithms controlling your news feed select for, and this has significant effects on the news itself (Carr, 66). This was made obvious to social scientists abroad when, in 2014, “Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm largely buried news of protests over the killing of Michael Brown” because the story was “not ‘like-able’ and even hard to comment on” (Tufecki, 2016). Thus, in the name of TOS, an incredibly significant news story was buried from the consumer base. Had there not been traditional news media to cover the story, and had everyone been reliant upon social media as their primary news source, than the Michael Brown story simply would not have become the incredibly significant national phenomenon it deserved to be. What is more disconcerting than the burying of stories, however, is what such stories are replaced with. Once again, in the name of TOS, “social media dishes out compulsive stuff that tends to reinforce people’s biases” (Clavo, 24) because the algorithm knows you are more likely to like, share or read something you agree with. While in theory the unmediated nature of social media makes it a more pluralistic news source, in reality “social media increases the likelihood that users filter and interpret news on their own, according to preexisting ideological bias” (Ceron, 231). This means that liberals are likely to follow fellow liberals such as John Oliver and Glenn Greenwald, and conservatives are more likely to follow fellow conservatives such as Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson. Thus, two news selection factors are at work; people tend to ‘like’ pages they agree with, and the news feed algorithm keeps showing them content they agree with because they like/comment/share such content more often. The consequence of this is that people become engrossed in ideological echo chambers where their worldview is constantly reinforced with news that supports their existing bias. People thus rarely hear the other side and become more and more convinced that they are right. In a democracy, which depends upon deliberation, accountability, and a willingness to change sides, having two sides who are absolutely convinced they are right does not lead to proper functioning. Lastly, there is the phenomenon of ‘fake news’, which since last year’s election has become widely known and disputed. Fake news has of course always existed in the political sphere, but social media has allowed such news to travel farther, faster, and more often than ever before. And of course, the rapid proliferation of fake news was and still is enabled by the TOS business model of social media. Fake news stories, which are often sensationalist, fulfill all the criteria social media algorithms filter for in news stories. For example, fake news is invariably accompanied by an attention grabbing headline that seemingly begs the user for a share and a comment. And in practice, people oblige sensationalist fake news stories, as a recent study has shown that, at minimum, during 2016 there were “115 pro-Trump fake stories that were shared on Facebook a total of 30 million times” (Alcott, 213). It is almost impossible to calculate just how many people then saw such fake stories, but that same study suggests a healthy estimate would be “upwards of 150 million” (Alcott, 214). Thus, during the last election season, perhaps 150 million potential voters were exposed to false information about one of the candidates. This means that some number of voters went to the polls with information informing their vote that was, perhaps, completely false. This directly violates the principle democracy, which supposes that voters are (at least to some minimal extent) rational and self interested. Both of these principles are directly violated if the information informing such voters, or at least portion of their information, is just false.
Though Rousseau and Weber could barely agree on what ‘political participation’ means, they would certainly concur that actually voting, deliberating with fellow citizens, and utilizing true information are actions integral to a democratic process which holds politicians accountable and keeps the interests of the people at the core of political discourse. Unfortunately for us, social media poses a formidable threat to all of these principles. Social media has fostered a decreasing willingness to democratically participate among active users. The actual ‘deliberation’ which occurs on social media has become invariably funny, angry, or insufficient. And current social media is a terrible news source for democracy, as its business model discourages consequential yet hard hitting stories, prioritizes confirmation bias, and even encourages the proliferation of sensationalist and blatantly false news. Though it does not look good, it is hard to say if social media and democracy are necessarily incompatible. As discussed, many of the problems posed by social media emerge from its dependence upon the TOS revenue model. If sites like Twitter and Facebook moved over to a subscription based revenue model, perhaps they could focus more on encouraging healthy, thoughtful deliberation, and proliferate pluralistic views which propel people out of their self induced echo chambers. But would people be willing to pay for a service they are used to getting for free? It is probable that Facebook and Twitter are not willing to take such a risk. But then again, if we take into account the problems social media currently poses for democracy, 5 dollars a month seems like a small price to pay.
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