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Has social media helped or hindered democracy?

Katherine Ashley Chen

October 14, 2022

At the fundamental level, democracy is a system in which power belongs somewhat equally to the people and can be exercised through participation, competition, and liberty. At first glance, it may seem that social media encourages democracy by allowing better education, discussion, and gathering. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Although social media was initially heralded as the “liberation technology of the future”, it has since functioned as the opposite, inhibiting the democratic process by creating an environment of extreme polarization that decreases the accountability of elected officials, empowering unqualified politicians to win elections through targeted advertising that warps constituent opinion, and enhancing the durability of authoritarian regime and producing greater ease in which dictators can monitor their citizens and prevent mass mobilization.

First, social media algorithms encourage extreme polarization and disinformation, expending the democratic process as they generate advertising revenue. Predicated on the idea that users can create largely insular groups of “friends” who share information interchangeably, softwares ingrained into social media technology carefully curate information that appears on users’ individual news feeds, satisfying customers by providing them only with information they agree with (Hull). In doing so, platforms spontaneously create deeply polarized groups who believe nearly everything they hear (Hull), which sets up an environment more vulnerable to fake news, disinformation, and anti-democracy (Sunstein). Although it is impossible to determine a causal relationship, the graphs below show a sharp increase in animosity across party lines—a representation of political polarization—at the same time as a sharp increase in the number of people using social media platforms. Specifically, between 2004 to 2014, the number of Republicans who viewed Democrats as unfavorable more than doubled (Doherty), from 21% to 43%, while the number of Facebook and Youtube users increased from practically 0 to 1.2 billion (Ortiz-Ospina). Social media abets a communal culture where people disagree on reality itself, making it impossible for them to use the democratic process to hold elected officials accountable (Sunstein).

Additionally, the prevalence of social media usage has created an era of frighteningly-effective targeted advertising, placing political candidates in positions of power that they are not qualified for, and thus reducing the ability of the democratic process (Lawson). While targeted advertising has always existed, social media has elevated it to a historic level (Madawi), allowing for misrepresentation or manipulation of information in order to sway voters. Through selective inclusion of specific earmarked topics in advertisements, voters are more easily swayed to the opposing side, and political candidates with the most money end up winning elections, placed into undeserved seats of power. For example, on behalf of the 2016 Trump campaign, the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica compiled massive amounts of personal data to build up “psychological profiles” of US voters, in order to target them with advertisements more likely to sway their opinions (Hamilton, Madawi). They identified voters who were on the fence between the two presidential candidates, and especially focused on targeting subtly-disguised Trump ads towards those voters (Hamilton). The firm also attempted to dissuade Black voters from voting in the election, using information such as search queries, Facebook “likes” and browsing history (Hamilton). The same techniques used to win Trump the 2016 election despite his opponent winning majority preference have been employed in over 100 other election campaigns, in countries including the UK, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand (Ghoshal), demonstrating the absolute power and pervasiveness of targeted advertising. Because of the prevalence of targeted advertising, voters are unable to understand the unbiased full picture of political issues, and the result is an undemocratic system of political debacle where voter opinions are misrepresented or misinterpreted and money is the principal determination of election outcomes.

On the other hand, some say that by increasing the ease of communication, social media destroys the barriers of which ordinary citizens used to face in organizing protests and dissent against the government (Tucker). Citizens can more easily band together and advocate for their civil rights, or challenge unresponsive and repressive governments, thus strengthening the democratic process (Tucker). For example, in the democratic regimes of the UK and US, social media has been key to expanding social movements that decrease the inequality of power between different demographics of society, such as Black Lives Matter. The use of hashtags and access to real time information has allowed social movements in democratic regimes to gain popularity and introduce greater equality and democracy. The effect of proliferating social movements that better citizen livelihood is, of course, far less prevalent in authoritarian regimes, where media is strictly scrutinized. According to The Digital Dictators by Kendall-Taylor, Frantz and Wright, autocracies benefit from advancements in technology and social media, as it steers a large number of people onto a singular, more easily-controlled platform and enables leaders to effectively control mass mobilization. For much of history, the majority of dictators were unseated through coups and mass mobilizations of the people, and regime leaders relied on tactics such as overpaying security or alternating social elites in order to prevent threats to their leadership. With the advent of social media, however, the paper posits that authoritarian regimes can more effectively prevent the threat of mass mobilization and decrease any threats to their governance, which is especially apparent in modern Russia and China.

The ability to control mass mobilization through social media is most useful to authoritarian regimes that source legitimacy from policy ideas and cult of personality, like China and Russia. Although the Russian and Chinese regimes both derive legitimacy mainly from traditionalism, charisma, and performance, both regimes are also aware of their need to satisfy the people in order maintain stability and stay in power (“Sovereignty, Authority, and Power”). Social media has allowed both countries to easily filter out oppositive language towards the government, which helps them maintain low citizen dissatisfaction and prevent a change of power. The Chinese government’s “Great Firewall”, for example, has established a closed system and allowed central media propaganda to be more greatly effective in satisfying the minds of its citizens, and the government also uses social media to spy on its own government officials, in order to prevent defection from within. Similarly, Russia has been a leader in creating automated accounts on social media that amplify influence campaigns and distract anti-government messages from spreading. In contrast to democratic regimes like the UK, where minimally restricted speech has allowed for greater discussion, social media has been a proliferator of groupthink in authoritarian regimes, decreasing the ability of citizens to critically examine undemocratic governing techniques.

To determine the effect that social media has on democracy, it is important to look past the initial intentions during the creation of these platforms, and delve into the real life consequences of media implementation. Not only does social media hinder the democracy in democratic regimes by creating murky political environments, it also increases the ability of authoritarian regimes to stay in power and proliferate anti-democracy. It is not sufficient to merely say that social media has prevented the advancement of democracy, but instead that it has caused the demise of it.

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