Is Social Media Destroying Democracy?

It doesn’t seem so long ago when the promise of an inter-connected world was all the rage, with the free sharing of information being praised as the dawning of a new age for global communication and community. An audacious young Mark Zuckerberg praised his nascent social network, proclaiming that “Connecting the world is really important, and that is something that we want to do. That is why Facebook is here on this planet.”

The equally precocious founders of Google offered a mission to Do No Evil while organizing the world’s information to make it universally accessible and useful. Likewise, their youthful optimism gushed about “the potential for technology to remake the world into a better place.” Early outcomes were hopeful, as Facebook’s network grew quickly to more than 2 billion users, while the Arab Spring was heralded politically as “the Twitter revolution,” and “google” became a verb.

But how fast the wheel has turned. Today we find ourselves blaming social media for disseminating misinformation as propaganda (“fake news”), destroying objective journalism, invading user privacy, corrupting elections, enabling and fomenting ideological extremism, canceling political dissent by censoring free speech, cornering markets and suppressing competition, crushing small businesses, and harming the physical and mental health of its users. Whew!

No, it really hasn’t been that long. It’s like we’ve imbibed a heady drug, woke up and found ourselves addicted, wondering how we got here and how to break this compulsive habit before it breaks us. To paraphrase David Byrne, “How did we get here?”

There are two things we need to understand to better answer this question. One is the nature of social interaction, individually and socially, and how that flows from our behavioral instincts. Second, is how the business model and logic of large-scale social media networks manipulate and profit from those natural instincts.

Man is by nature a social animal” — Aristotle, Politics

As Aristotle noted, humans crave social interaction. As young people, we seek the approval of elders and peers as a form of bonding and belonging. We form families, tribes, neighborhoods, and communities to fulfill this instinctual need for social engagement and mutual protection. Modern social networking technology feeds on that need, but what technology offers today differs from centuries of traditional social interaction in terms of scale and the implications for identity, trust, and commitment.

Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has observed that human face-to-face relationships have an upward bound of about 150 relationships before dissipating. Beyond that we lose track of our personal networks, so institutional structures must be established to cohere the community network. We understand intuitively that friendships formed through in-person relationships are fundamentally different than “friends” on Facebook. Nobody has 6000+ “friends.” Friends connected through online social networks (OSNs) are too easy; requiring little or no commitment. As the degrees of separation increase, peers on OSNs become virtually anonymous. So, as defined by trust and commitment, our social media friends are not really true friends at all. OSNs have allowed us to make connections that live on the other side of the globe, so we don’t really ‘know’ who we are engaging. What this means is that on social media we are able to shed the constraints of reputation, integrity, and trust. This opens up social engagement to all kinds of malicious intent.

If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.” ~ Aesop (c.620–560 BC)

Gossiping and lying go hand in hand.” ~ Proverb

Whoever gossips to you, will gossip about you.” ~ Spanish Proverb

Comparing OSNs to traditional gossip networks can provide valuable insights. As these quotes show, gossiping has a long, checkered history. In traditional societies, the human propensity to gossip can serve a useful purpose in reinforcing a community’s cultural norms and values by calling attention to and ostracizing those who violate those norms. These practices can range from the harmless to quite ruthless, all in the name of solidifying the community under those accepted norms. It’s how the traditional community survives and maintains stability. Individuals living in modern liberal societies often find such conformity stifling. But gossip can also be positive, promoting one’s good character, as indicated by the phrase, “Your reputation precedes you.” (The key here is how we value reputation.)

Scientific studies show the reward center in the brain — the caudate nucleus — is activated in response to gossip, especially malicious gossip. For instance, subjects seem to be amused or entertained by celebrity scandals. We all know this form of Schadenfreude as the basis of the business model for supermarket tabloids, as exemplified by the modern fascination with the British monarchy and its human foibles.

Furthermore, studies have shown that subjects get a dopamine hit from superficial engagement on social media. The likes, the emojis, the comments, all offer instant gratification that somebody out there approves of us or at least notices us. Popularity metrics signal our status on the social media hierarchy. All this feeds our sense of self-worth and self-esteem and helps shape our identity. This dopamine rush is exploited by social media user interfaces in order to provoke and prolong user engagement on the platforms.

By appealing to our base instincts social media has transformed itself into this role of spreading gossip, but on a far larger scale with far less restraint. In this respect, Facebook and Twitter have become little more than global gossip networks, where those gossiping and being gossiped about have no relationships to a shared community. We see this today in the attempts to cancel those who disagree with an accepted narrative or ideology, where perceived transgressors are set upon by Twitter mobs and trolls. We see it with teenage bullying and exploitation. We see it with constant virtue signaling.

With large-scale, anonymous networks, where no one can be held accountable for attacking another, bad behavior becomes far too easy and tempting, perhaps irresistible. Peoples’ careers and lives are being destroyed by what can be viewed as an unserious game with very serious consequences. In one study conducted in Germany, researchers found that Facebook’s own engagement tools were tied to a significant rise in membership in extremist organizations. In the US, Facebook has been blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the rise of white supremacist groups.

Paradoxically, this scaling effect, enabling anonymity and lack of accountability, is what really makes today’s social media anti-social. There is no trust or reputational capital to be lost and removing these constraints can bring out the worst in us. OSNs have developed to the point where we are getting all the negative effects of gossip with fewer of the positive effects of shared community promised. In this respect, large-scale OSNs make no sense as a social institution. Nevertheless, the psychological and emotional allure of online social engagement is overpowering, while the financial power associated with OSNs is formidable. In terms of economic power and global reach, our social media giants can go head-to-head with most countries. The top five company valuations on US financial markets are all Big Tech, with Google and Facebook ranked at #4 and #5.

The Primacy of Technology

The big social media platforms today, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, make money through targeted advertising, creating specialized interfaces to keep users engaged and collect as much data as possible to sell to targeted advertisers. The more users, sharing more information flowing through the network, the more advertising revenues increase along with company valuations.

With this profit incentive, the OSN platforms’ engagement strategies go beyond user-initiated behaviors, using AI machine algorithms and click-bait to solicit engagement among users by suggesting friends, games, similar content, contests, and memes. This is why Facebook asks users to play what seem to be silly games: such engagement, no matter how meaningless, can become instantly monetized. Most of these interactions are fairly innocuous, but, because sensationalism and conflict attract engagement, many are meant to provoke political conflict or collusion. In addition, the engagement strategies depend upon keeping attention siloed. If users are regularly exposed to different points of view, if they develop healthy habits for weighing fact versus fiction, they will be tougher targets for engagement.

At best, OSN click-bait strategies and target algorithms yield an endless cacophony of digital noise to compete against any positive human interaction. At worst, and most often than not, we get warring tribes that only venture outside their walled silos to engage with the enemy.

Furthermore, social media is a winner-take-all industry as OSNs have become virtual monopolies through network effects. Much like national languages and computer operating systems, the more users on the network, the more new users want to join the party, the more personal data is harvested, and the more valuable the growing network is to advertisers. This creates a significant barrier to entry for competitors, where any successful new platform is quickly swallowed up by the giants, as when Facebook bought up WhatsApp and Instagram, and Google purchased YouTube.

Their dominance grants Facebook and Google immense bargaining leverage over publishers, content creators, and other stakeholders, who often have no choice but to hand over their own proprietary data to satiate the platforms’ thirst for content. This bargaining power has crushed many creative professions and independent publishers. As far as users who provide all this valuable content go, well, they get a free profile page and a few tools to deepen their engagement.

When it comes to business practices and power over the global internet, Big Tech is unrivaled. As plainly stated by one recent study:

Facebook and Google use their dominant position as gatekeepers to the internet to surveil users and businesses, amass unrivaled stores of data, and rent out targeting services to third parties who can then target content — from ads for shoes to racist propaganda — at users with a perceived precision unrivaled by any other entity. …The longer users remain on the platform — hooked on sensationalist content, which the platforms’ algorithms prioritize — the more money Facebook and Google make from advertising.

Despite the apparent toxicity of these social media platforms, for those who wish to fulfill a sincere desire for wider social connection and engagement, there is no other game in town. Without meaningful competition, Big Tech has transformed their platforms not to help us communicate, but to addict us to their services in order to sell more advertising. For the rest of us, the result has not been the promised congenial, global community, but rather a malevolent battle for primacy and survival.

The result is that Big Tech has acquired its own acronym for its five biggest players — the FAANGs — referring to Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google. Fangs have never been warm and fuzzy.

The Nature of Political Engagement in Democracy

As suggested in the title of this essay, we need to address what all this means for political democracy. Current events might give us a clue, from a previous summer of ongoing urban riots across the country against local government and law enforcement to a protest at the Capitol in January against the 2020 presidential election that turned violent. The chaos in both cases can be traced to the role of social media provocation and coordination.

Democracy is a form of political order that relies on a social choice mechanism called voting that seeks to support and manage self-government. The social choice challenge is always how to distill an inestimable number of personal preferences and interests down to a single pragmatic social policy agenda. It’s not a simple task, nor an obvious one. Neither an authoritarian hierarchy nor a chaotic populist mob accomplishes the objective. Democracy is a messy business, as Churchill said, the worst of all possible political systems, except for all the alternatives.

American democracy is built on a decentralized structure that seeks to best fulfill the goal of self-government while adhering to our stated values of liberty and justice. This is an especially difficult challenge in a large population made up of diverse cultural, ethnic, and racial groups spread over a large landmass, like the USA.

When systems grow large and complex, nature, technology, and history show us that the best way to manage is to decentralize the process. So, in the US we have fifty states made up of thousands of counties and municipalities to decentralize government. What is also required to facilitate the process is a method of ranking policy priorities that can converge on a workable ordering of those priorities. The final condition is a voting process that allows people to compromise on the big issues and find convergence on decisions the entire population finds acceptable, if not ideal.

Our decentralized system of representative governance seeks to fulfill these objectives while also imposing some necessary trade-offs. Our voting system of winner-take-all plurality yields a two-party system where the winning strategy is to acquire more than 50% of the vote. This design eschews proportional representation with a multitude of competing interests by forcing voters to set priorities and move toward a centrist coalition. This design seeks a majority mandate through a process acceptable to the minority as well, the incentive being to capture the center of American politics.

After capturing that center through elections, the governing coalition must then govern the entire populace while adhering to the accepted process to maintain legitimacy. This requires, above all else, convergence through compromise.

The beauty of a two-party system is that voter choices are forced towards the center of compromise to be successful, so a winning strategy will appeal more to commonalities among voters rather than differences. The alternate idea of proportional representation and multiple parties creates more responsive but fragile coalitions, whereas, with a dominant centrist coalition, the two-party structure creates greater stability with greater resistance to change.

Naturally, this process favors the status quo (i.e., conservatism?) rather than change (progressivism?) and thus the trade-off is unappealing to those agents of change among us. Understandable, but all societies survive by following time-tested values and practices until they no longer serve, so the burden of change is always on those eager to embrace it. While time is on their side, the change agents often cannot wait.

Given America’s profile as a large country with a large culturally, ethnically, and racially diverse population, democratic governance is no small task. Convergence is far easier with a smaller population, a smaller land area, and a more homogeneous culture, with shared racial and ethnic identities. The USA has none of these advantages, but, starting with a relatively small population and land area, the designers of the US Constitution displayed remarkable foresight in their design.

So, the million-dollar question is whether our social media technology is making our task easier or more impossible?

As discussed above, social media is making us more tribal, more isolated from those different than us, more alienated from a common national identity. The face-to-face appreciation of each “other” is lost and technology’s depreciation of humanity allows us to cast that “other” in dark shadows instead of bright enlightenment. It is replacing true meaning with a false sense of tribal identity and differentiation. And where we cannot find this differentiation, we create it. It’s ironic that our commonalities far outweigh our differences, yet these small differences are what we magnify through much of our social media engagement.

We can easily see that these behaviors are short-circuiting our political democracy. We are creating a bimodal distribution of political preferences rather than a unified, centrist “national” one. Ultimately, we are adrift, wondering what American democracy is all about. Without the strength of conviction, we are weak and vulnerable. And as we drift, those with anti-democratic tendencies, whether authoritarian or anarchic, are harnessing these tools to overcome our institutional constraints and undermine our foundations of liberty and justice. We have seen how some of these interests have used the unique crisis of a global pandemic to advance their narrow agenda. It is particularly shocking how some narrow interests employ science as a political weapon, but then completely dismiss scientific skepticism when it doesn’t serve their purpose.

In the social media space, we are seeing censorship of opinion, even informed opinion; canceling of those we disagree with professionally and socially (this is a modern form of ostracism, banishment, and exile from the community); invasions of privacy; collusion; attacks on personal liberties; and the incitement of social disorder and chaos. What is worse is that our traditional media platforms in news journals and television/radio broadcasting have been sucked into this vile vortex, spreading propaganda as objective news.

These developments expose two serious threats to free democracy:

· An ideological ‘tribal’ civil war among citizens inflamed by information media, making democratic compromise impossible; and

· A danger of collusion between Big Tech and Big Govt to infringe upon constitutional freedoms and privacy by co-opting social media platforms, such as we have seen in China.

This second danger seems particularly acute as the solution recently discussed in the US Senate in response to the first danger. We cannot allow unaccountable governments to co-opt unaccountable technology platforms with the idea that “they” will make us safe. It flips the definition of a people’s democracy on its head.

Remedies?

Are there remedies that can halt this disintegration of our social and political institutions or do things just fall apart? As a free democracy, we need to defend free speech as the basis of communication and comprehension of differing viewpoints. How else to find compromise? We also need objective sources of information we can trust. And we need the integrity of objective national media.

There are many policy proposals that address the problems of Big Tech, from rewriting the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to make OSNs more accountable and liable for the information spread on their networks to breaking up the Big Tech monopolies to changing the revenue model. This essay is intended to bring attention to and explain the problem without going deeply into possible regulatory solutions, but the author’s impressions are that online “search” is likely a public good just like the public library and should be regulated like a public utility; broad and deep vertical integration of product markets is likely subject to anti-trust laws; while barriers to entry should be reduced to counter the network externalities that create quasi-monopolies and help foster greater competition and innovation in technology markets. The advertising revenue model relies on harvesting free data from users, so a more just model would share that data value with the users that create it.

But just as important is an appeal on the personal level to voluntary behavioral modifications among social media users, much like those promoted to decrease tobacco consumption. This is necessary for our personal mental health and our social peace of mind. We know the nihilistic and narcissistic behaviors we engage in on social media are unhealthy. We are fighting for attention, we are competing for status, we are allowing ourselves to become smug with our own created self-image. We are in zero-sum, finite games. But I doubt any of this brings us a sense of meaning, purpose, or fulfillment, no matter how many “likes” we get.

We also know that we crave the affirmation of our unique personal identities and a sense of belonging in our social communities. We need positive-sum, infinite games. (War is a finite game, peace is an infinite game.) Technology can serve us in this capacity, but only if we create social media that makes sense. What makes sense is small scale, inter-personal, commonality of interests, and a great deal of empathy and open-mindedness. What makes sense are positive social interactions that reward our human social and creative instincts.

Lastly, we need to reject ideological politics as personal identity. Political differences are natural, but fused with identity they become threatening and lead to self-defensive reactions. Our partisan identities should mean relatively little compared to our identities as creative, intelligent, interesting, empathetic individuals.

Our online, interconnected world will become more so, but we need to ensure it doesn’t become a more conflicted and contentious one. We do not want a world that wages war by cyber means. More crucial, we need to ensure that technology enhances our humanity by safeguarding our treasured values of liberty and justice for all. (Now go share that on Facebook and Twitter!)

,” American Economic Liberties Project, April 10, 2020.

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Michael Harrington

I am currently a tech start-up founder in the creative media original content space. Social science academic and author.