It is undeniable that social media has and will be in many instances a force for good in politics. It has facilitated massive social progress in instances such as the Arab Spring and it has helped people coordinate mass protests in places like Hong Kong. It is also a very powerful tool in being able to spread information and awareness about important social issues such as racial discrimination and various human rights abuses all around the world. However, lurking behind the scenes is a very real danger that threatens political discourse, our democratic values and it is a danger we all need to be aware of.
The simple fact is that social media is increasingly being used as a platform to spread fake news and hateful ideologies. Furthermore, with the development of more powerful algorithms and artificial intelligence, technology is being exploited in a way that we are not fully able to deal with or even recognise. The world of politics is changing rapidly and social media has particularly facilitated three new phenomena: politicians ranting online, data collection and information overload.
Social media has a truly vast user base that politicians can actively tap into, allowing them to reach voters like never before. Politicians can now ‘get in with the youth’ or capitalise on the viral nature of social media that allows quick growth of support. This has led to a significant amount of political discourse now taking place on social media as politicians flock to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
It’s Use By Politicians
For politicians, one benefit of social media is very clear – you get complete control over your image and narrative. This sounds great, but it doesn’t come without its cons. One of the reasons politicians have complete control over their narrative is because there is far less accountability where you are not immediately called out or challenged on what you say. There is far less of a filter or any form of meaningful moderation and this is something that politicians can exploit. It massively benefits them to turn people away from traditional media which provides accountability mechanisms. This is the rhetoric many politicians have used where they accuse the mainstream media of telling lies (while this may be true, social media certainly isn’t much better) and actively telling people not to trust it. What this means is that people are now far more likely to focus on and listen to what they hear on Twitter as opposed to media corporations such as CNN
Furthermore, social media changes the dimension through which we discuss policies. On Twitter for example you only have 150 characters to get your message across, on Instagram you have a few images and a short caption. Furthermore, people scroll through their feeds relatively quickly, meaning you need to capture their attention quickly. This means that it isn’t possible to have a meaningful discussion on policies as there simply isn’t enough time or space to do so. The most effective way therefore to gain attention is through identity or personality politics which catches people’s attention and using flashy headlines. Consequently, you shift people’s focus away from doing their research and instead focusing more on flashy rhetoric. This creates a new norm where issues simply aren’t discussed as much because the platform on which politics takes place does not facilitate this.
Another way in which politicians can exploit social media is through subtle means of voter suppression and manipulation. Social media uniquely uses a business model largely driven by ads and data – this is perfect for misuse by politicians. We already saw this with the Cambridge Analytica scandal where adverts can be very specifically tailored to individuals from particular groups which manipulate them and sway them in a very powerful way. This can also be used for voter suppression, where politicians can use targeted ads to try and put off certain groups from voting or engaging in politics. There is no centralising force that can keep these politicians in check and now people are exposed to these adverts which are perfectly tailored to manipulate them.
Social media is a powerful tool. Yes, it can be used to promote wonderful causes and rally people who are otherwise disenfranchised from politics. But equally, the possibilities for abuse are endless and social media is used in damaging ways. But the harms can occur even without politicians doing anything.
Social Media Algorithms
Social media is explicitly designed to try and get users hooked to their platforms which requires very powerful and effective algorithms. This means certain types of content are promoted and often your feed is heavily tailored to your preferences. This is problematic if people start to rely on social media primarily for information.
The viral element of social media particularly has an impact on how politicians act and the types of content users see. This leads to sensationalism where content that is outrageous and gets people riled up is promoted the most. Now politicians have incentives to get the most likes, clicks and comments to be promoted by these algorithms because only then can they reach the necessary audience they want. This has a major effect on the rhetoric politicians use on social media. They have incentives to use edgy messages to get attention and stir people up. You also want to try to appeal to people’s emotions which leads to politicians trying to make controversial statements and capitalise on strong emotions such as hate or fear in order to go viral and get people commenting. This leads politicians to make the most outrageous statements possible in order to gain attention.
Another key thing social media companies do is heavily tailor your feed to your own personal interests and beliefs in order to keep you engaged with things you like. This is very problematic in a political landscape where there is a wide range of views and a variety of different cultures and people interacting. This leads to echo chambers where you are only shown new stories or political accounts that represent your views and issues you care about. This means people never get the opportunity to see the multiplicity of candidates and core voting issues because social media restricts your feed. This means that people are often uninformed about certain issues and they simply aren’t aware of a lot of important things happening in the world.
Furthermore, the echo chambers on social media can lead to very unproductive and toxic discourse. Polarisation is fuelled as people are led down a rabbit hole where they only see others who confirm their biases, meaning that their ideas which never get challenged. One of the most fundamental ways we have productive discussions and discourse is through dialogue with those we disagree with, but social media fundamentally restricts the ability to see different perspectives. This is particularly pernicious with hateful ideologies which are never called out. People can easily get involved in hate groups and not realise it because there is no opposing voice to call it out. Furthermore, politicians have incentives to polarise in order to differentiate from others so that you only see their tweets in your echo chambers and not someone else’s. As people become isolated in these groups, it allows for the gradual radicalisation and strengthening of more hateful views which is becoming a serious issue.
The key thing that separates social media from anything else is that anyone can access it and reach other people. It is incredibly easy to make or share posts and this low barrier to entry means that social media is incredibly saturated. There is an information overload when thousands of accounts are discussing political issues and providing news to millions of users.
Social media has been used to bring attention to atrocities all over the world, displaying graphic images of violence and destruction. Now when a police officer shoots someone, or if a refugee washes up onshore after trying to cross the sea, there are sometimes millions of people retweeting videos and images of these things. One of the newer worries that has come with social media is that people become desensitised to certain images that try to highlight the suffering people face. When people see hundreds of these images, these atrocities become normalised to the point where they no longer evoke a strong emotional reaction. With such a volume of these images, they lose their effect, which can have serious impacts when the worst atrocities need to be brought to light, but people no longer think much of it when they see images of suffering.
The bigger problem here is that there isn’t much we can do to stop this from happening. With volume comes limited accountability as often companies don’t have the resources to check through millions of posts and compare them to sometimes ambiguous guideline in order to deem whether they are acceptable or not. This means there is a distinct lack of accountability mechanisms on social media. Despite the fact that we can have artificial intelligence and algorithms that flag certain content, there are a lot of grey areas where we don’t have such a simple solution. This includes controversial claims and opinions that are made without any justification and slightly misleading claims or things that are very hard to prove using studies.
This in particular has led to the rise of fake news for three reasons. Firstly, with such a large volume of content, you want to be the first to report some news, not caring whether it’s true. Secondly, in order to be viral, you want clickbait titles which bend the truth in order to attract attention. Thirdly there is no accountability mechanism and especially in echo chambers, no-one will call you out. This is terrible for a democracy which is based on people being able to vote for their interests in order to protect themselves and improve their material conditions. However, it is not possible to vote for your interests when you don’t know who represents your interests. People can easily be misled into voting for a policy that they think benefits them when they were in fact lied to. This is a genuine problem with threatens the very foundations of democracy and leaves thousands if not millions of people disenfranchised.
It’s hard to be optimistic. There are so many issues that social media presents when it comes to political discourse and action. Social media is wonderful as it can give a voice to those who are sidelined by the mainstream. Furthermore, it has the power to inform people without the reach of corporate interests. But this does not come without its costs and we may all be worse for it.