Is social media helping or hindering the flourishing of democracy? Initially, social media was heralded as a liberating new technology that would promote democratic outcomes and enhance democracy. Recently, we have started discovering the darker side of the new technology. The jury is still out on the relationship between social media and democracy.
“zuckerberg was an incel at 19 and now we can’t have democracy apparently” – reads a post from December 2020, which was liked by 58 000 users on Tumblr, one of the few social media platforms not owned by Facebook. The post refers to how Facebook, which started in 2003 as a site for ranking Mark Zuckerberg’s female classmates by their looks, has since become a powerful political tool. However, the relationship between social media and the erosion of democracy is more complicated in real life.
Initially, social media was heralded as an “inherently liberating” technology. Mass communication, which was traditionally dominated by elites who controlled the flow of information to the public, was fundamentally changed when the Internet enabled everyone to create, share, and find relevant content. Conventional wisdom held that the free and open information environment created by social networking technologies would promote democratic outcomes and enhance democracy.
This holds true to some extent. Social media helped protesters organise, mobilise support, and disseminate information during the Arab Spring uprisings in the early 2010s. More recently, social media helped connect pro-democracy activists and protesters in Hong Kong, Thailand and Taiwan. The “Milk Tea Alliance”, as these movements are referred to collectively, started in April 2020, when Chinese social media users attacked a Thai celebrity couple for expressing support for the Hong Kong and Taiwan independence movements, which led to an online “battle” between Thai and Chinese social media users. Since then, the Milk Tea Alliance has evolved to a leaderless pro-democracy protest movement across Southeast Asia. These youth-led movements share knowledge and stand in solidarity online in their similar struggles against censorship and authoritarianism.
Other ways in which social media fosters democracy and the freedom of information include the spreading and fact-checking of information in environments where elites aim to stifle critical voices or deceive the public. In China, where media censorship is notoriously strict, social media users resort to using code words or images to replace prohibited words and phrases. Critical social media users in China used code words, such as WH (replacing Wuhan), to discuss Covid-19, which was extensively censored in Chinese social media at the beginning of the outbreak. They also use emojis, for example, the rice (pronounced “mi”) and bunny (pronounced “tu”) emojis to address the #metoo campaign and issues of sexual harassment.
Bellingcat, the online investigative website specialising in open-source intelligence is the prime example of “online sleuthing”: the practice of making use of social media to verify claims made by powerful actors. Open-source investigators use publicly available data on the Internet, including photos and videos shared on social media to fact-check official narratives. Bellingcat attracted attention with its investigations into the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War (2017), the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury (2018), and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine (2014).
However, social media can also be used with anti-democratic intentions. The most prominent example is the 2016 US Presidential election. Between June 2015 and November 2016, approximately 11 million American social media users were exposed to Facebook advertisements generated by Russian agents who aimed to influence the outcome of the elections. Facebook’s advertising tools, which collect and aggregate data about users’ habits and interactions online, allowed Russian agents to target American citizens with specific messages appealing to their values and identities. Even more significant was the impact of the free posts and pages created by agents and bots, which reached more than 126 million users on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The case underlines how social media platforms are designed in a way that makes them vulnerable to exploitation for spreading propaganda; Russian agents did not need to hack any of these sites, they simply exploited the existing infrastructure.
The 2016 election was not the only example of social media being used to push fringe political ideologies. By now, it is common knowledge that the algorithms underlying social media sites nurture addiction to ensure that users spend as much time online as possible. To maximise engagement, social media algorithms track what content users engage with and how: what photos they like and comment on, who they follow or view, and even how long they spend looking at certain posts. Algorithms gather this information, rank what content is most ‘relevant’ to an individual, and deliver tailored content based on the user’s preferences. This creates ‘echo chambers’ or ‘filter bubbles’, where users are exposed to more people, news, and information that conform with what the algorithm has identified to be their pre-existing values or political ideology.
Engagement-based ranking of content and one-sided opinions can be a dangerous combination, Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen warned in her testimony to US Senators in October 2021. Haugen accused Facebook of fanning ethnic violence in Ethiopia and Myanmar, where posts inciting and glorifying violence against ethnic minorities led to real-world violence. She claimed that Facebook’s strategy for combatting misinformation was ineffective because 87% of the funds were spent on monitoring English-language content, even though only 9% of the site’s users are English speakers. In December 2021, survivors of the Rohingya genocide sued Facebook for facilitating violence by allowing its algorithms to amplify hate speech and failing to delete posts calling for violence. Facebook has admitted in 2018 that it had not done enough to prevent violence against the Rohingya minority, stating that “Facebook has become a means for those seeking to spread hate and cause harm, and posts have been linked to offline violence”.
States have delegated significant power to companies to moderate speech and information online for the past two decades. The growing concerns over the spread of disinformation, propaganda, and extreme content, and the recognition of the immense power social media platforms have in shaping global information flows might make them want to reassert their authority in this space. This will not be without problems. States regulating what can and cannot be posted online is a slippery slope towards censorship. However, it is also clear that without regulations, social media is a breeding ground for radicalism, fake news and conspiracy theories.
Content labelling has been proposed as a solution. In 2018, YouTube was the first social media platform to introduce a label for state-sponsored media channels. During the 2020 US Presidential elections, Twitter introduced a label for posts containing misleading information with a warning sign and a link to further information. To curb the rapidly spreading misinformation around the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccine scepticism, Instagram also labels posts that contain these keywords with a link to information confirmed by the WHO or the CDC. Social scientists have found fact-checking to be effective in decreasing belief in false information, and have lasting effects.
Although this is a positive development, social media platforms retain the power to regulate information. Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of Twitter, a step back for online content regulation, exposes how information flows are regulated by unaccountable billionaires, instead of democratically elected leaders. To remedy this, steps have been taken on the national and supranational level. The EU’s Digital Services Act, accepted in October 2022 requires platforms to mitigate their algorithms, and the UK also has proposed legislation to give users a choice to reject targeted advertising. There is an increasing push for reform, but it remains to be seen if social media can be reformed in a way that allows democracy to flourish.