The Internet has revolutionised how people acquire information. Humans are social creatures, and one of the biggest gifts given to us by the internet is social media. Social media has transformed the way we communicate with others and more likely empowered individual users by protecting their freedom of speech and expression. Users on social media can connect with other users from different parts of the world within seconds. Content creation and dissemination have become easier than ever. However, the purpose of this essay is to examine the downside of these advantages, i.e., the democratic nature of social media. Considering how accessible and widespread social media is, has it potentially made existing problems even worse?
Social media has questioned many existing norms and challenged traditional news media and institutions. However, some problems have amplified since the creation of social media. Online harassment and cyberbullying have now become mainstream and are mostly facilitated by social media (Persily & Tucker, 2020). Although social media was once thought to be a place where all voices were heard, online harassment and widespread intimidation have left some social groups, like people of colour, females, certain religious groups, and people of certain age groups, the victims of such encounters. This encounter has led disadvantaged social groups to take less part in online social platforms than they would wish (Persily & Tucker, 2020).
One of the core elements of democracy is diversity of viewpoints, and an individual can make informed decisions when they are presented with diverse viewpoints and opinions. News is one such source that fosters diversity of viewpoints and helps democracy thrive. News can help produce “positive externalities” that in fact benefit human society by bringing about policy changes and a redefinition of the roles of political parties and institutions (Persily & Tucker, 2020). However, due to fewer regulations for news generation on social media, it has led to enormous disinformation and misinformation on online social platforms. It is crucial to note that social platforms are a business model that exists to make money by presenting users with content that is both controversial and tailored specifically to them; this is referred to as “algorithmic gatekeeping” (Stark et al., 2020). This business model has sort of been flawed when considering the democratic stand that it has taken.
Algorithmic gatekeeping has given rise to “filter bubbles” (i.e., content tailored to the user’s personal preference) and “echo chambers” (i.e., showing opinions that align with the user’s preference). Hence, algorithmic gatekeeping presents the user with news that is tailored specifically for them. This one-sided view of society and topics could lead to fragmentation and polarization. Fragmentation is defined as the “disintegration of society into smaller sub-units that no longer form a cohesive whole, induced by individualized media exposure” (as cited in Stark et al., 2020), while polarization means “ideological division of a society into different (extreme) political camps” (Stark et al., 2010). Hence, with fragmentation and polarization comes a declining social consensus on major societal issues, and society is more divided than ever. Although, social media has led to more news being generated, for an individual user it does not necessarily mean diverse. The user often gets what they want and what they like through this algorithmic gatekeeping. Due to this, diverging views are often marginalized, and disengaging with views that are ideologically different has become easier (Kent, 2013). Lastly, apart from the algorithm the content that is being shared to us is coming from the user that we trust and know. For instance, considering India’s situation, fake news stories on WhatsApp revolve around the idea of nationalism and nation building as they connects user emotionally and make fact checking less important (Bali & Desai, 2019).
In a nutshell, social media has always given opportunity to the individual user to create and share content, and perform their right of free speech. However, the problem lies in the abuse of free speech on social media and its algorithmic gatekeeping. Humans are so engrossed on social media platforms that their decisions in real life are shaped by the information they perceive on online social platforms, and this is where the problem lies (Margetts, 2018). Social media has the power to bring large-scale policy changes and reforms to institutions, but with the current structure of social media and extreme polarization, the changes are nowhere near. Hence, lawmakers and tech giants should work together to structure an online space that is safe for all the users, promotes diverse content and free from any manipulation or filtering. As the quote says, “Unity in Diversity.”
Bali, A., & Desai, P. (2019). Fake news and social media: Indian perspective. Media Watch, 10(3), 737-750. https://doi.org/10.15655/mw/2019/v10i3/49687
Kent, M. (2013). Using social media dialogically: Public relations role in reviving democracy. Public relations review, 39(4), 337-345. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2013.07.024
Margetts, H. (2018). Rethinking democracy with social media. Political Quarterly, 90(S1). https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:8d51efd0-ede2-450c-9f96-5b962a2d9989/download_file?file_format=application%2Fpdf&safe_filename=Ch%2B9%2B%2BMargetts%2B-%2BRethinking%2Bdemocracy%2Bwith%2Bsocial%2Bmedia%2Bfinal.pdf&type_of_work=Journal+article
Persily, N., & Tucker, A. (Eds.). (2020). Social media and democracy : The state of the field, prospects for reform. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108890960
Stark, B., Stegmann, D., Magin, M., & Jurgens, P. (2020). Are algorithms a threat to democracy. The rise of intermediaries: A Challenge for Public discourse. https://algorithmwatch.org/de/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Governing-Platforms-communications-study-Stark-May-2020-AlgorithmWatch.pdf