As of 2022, there are almost 35 million social media users in Canada.
In 2018, there were less than 25 million (Dixon, 2022).
A difference of around 10 million or 40% in just five years.
When beginning to research social media and democracy, I was under the impression that most believed social media is poor for democracy. I did find many recent articles that make the argument “social media is negatively impacting or threatening democracy.” Here are a few articles that make that argument:
- Social Media Is Warping Democracy – The Atlantic
- From Liberation to Turmoil: Social Media and Democracy | Journal of Democracy
- Evidence Mounts Of Social Media’s Negative Impacts For Democracy (forbes.com)
However, what I was surprised to find was that a lot of articles did not make that argument. Most determined that social media is not good or bad for democracy, but more of a neutral force with pros and cons. Here are a few articles that come to that conclusion:
- Is Social Media Good or Bad for Democracy? – Sur – International Journal on Human Rights (conectas.org)
- Social media impact on democracy – Charles Koch Foundation
- Social Media, Democracy and Democratization | Diplomatist
While exploring the goodness of social media for democracy is a worthy endeavour, it is one that has been pursued many times and resulted in the articles above. The reality is that social media is going nowhere, the fact that 10 million more users have joined social media in Canada since 2018 proves that. So, even if we were to research the impact of social media on democracy and come to the conclusion that it is bad, we would gain nothing. Rather than explore whether social media is good or bad, here I will explore how social media can be used to sustain and promote a healthy democracy.
Defining a Model
Democracy means “rule by the people” (Froomkin, 2022). This means that power is distributed among the masses so that decisions are made in a manner through which the people approve. Throughout history, it has been fundamental in humanity’s effort to converge toward a just and equitable society
“The term social media refers to a computer-based technology that facilitates the sharing of ideas, thoughts, and information through virtual networks and communities.” (Dollarhide, 2022). This definition includes platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but it also includes non-centralized media too such as news sites and personal blogs (like this one).
The Interaction of Social Media and Democracy
Democracy is heavily reliant on the flow of information, as information is what allows people to form views and base their actions in a logical manner. Social media is a technology that accelerates the transportation of information. Resultantly, one might immediately think that social media may allow for democracy to thrive.
Issues With The Model
Centralization – Social Media Platform Incentives Are At Odds With Society (Business)
Today there is an incredible wealth of information available online, and unfortunately, we all only have so much attention to give. Centralized social media platforms such as Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and Snapchat, all have business models that rely on our attention. Their primary way of earning money is by selling our attention to advertisers by giving them the ability to use the platforms as advertisement media (Mintzer, 2020). An unfortunate truth is that as a result of this, is that the platforms end up promoting content that is likely to send us into outrage because outrage creates engagement and keeps us on social media (Hathaway, 2021).
Echo Chambers (Individuals)
In his article The problem of living inside echo chambers, Thi Nguyen defines echo chambers as spaces where insiders come to distrust individuals on the outside. The result of this is that insiders start to believe everything those around them say, and begin to refuse to believe anything else outside of their bubble. People are exposed to ideas outside of their echo chamber, but unfortunately, others within their echo chamber do not trust these ideas, and as a result, they follow and refuse to trust those on the outside (Thi Nguyen, 2019).
Fake News and Censorship (Politics)
A couple of issues that have been at the forefront of social media in the past few years are fake news and censorship. In recent times and especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, centralized social media platforms have become increasingly concerned with what people can and can not say on the internet and this has resulted in frustration across partisan lines. The left argues that not enough disinformation is being stopped and the right argues that facts are being censored from the public. Unfortunately, it really does appear that social media companies are making up rules regarding content moderation on the fly and this is heavily concerning for the future of free speech and spread of fake news (Oremus, 2022).
What To Do
What You Should Do
The unfortunate truth is that platform-based social media problems are unlikely to dissolve themselves quickly. According to the Pew Research Center, “experts are evenly split on whether the coming decade will see a reduction in false and misleading narrative online” (Anderson & Raine, 2022). The good news is that we as individuals have the ability to make choices for ourselves.
What we must do as individuals is be conscious of these issues on social media. When browsing information online, ensure that you are approaching it neutrally and look at multiple sides to the same issue so you can form your own opinion on the matter. Approach all information with the understanding that it might be false, even if it aligns with your own views.
What Government Should Do
Through policy, governments have the power to apply pressure on social media companies to make changes to their platforms.
This is a difficult path for governments to go down, however, as political parties making decisions regarding what information can be shared is something that people should be skeptical of.
However, this is a bipartisan issue and government can target business models instead of content moderation. Perhaps there is some hope that government can intervene and force social media companies to change their business models (Zubrow, 2022).
What Social Media Companies Should Do
Social media companies can explore alternative business models that align their interests with those of society. Sara Brown at MIT recommends social media companies explore ideas such as subscription models, identity verification, pay for content models, and giving users control over data (Brown, 2021).
Social media companies should realize their obligation to society goes beyond making profits because their actions have incredibly broad implications for society.
How This Makes Social Media More Democratic
Making social media more democratic requires collective action. Individuals need to become more aware of social medias flaws, government needs to implement policy, and social media companies need to adapt. If this occurs, social media will be a more democratic space, as it will become one in which healthy discourse is encouraged; as opposed to the current environment in which there is discourse, except neither side really listens to the other.
Anderson, J. & Raine, L. (2022). The future of truth and misinformation online. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2017/10/19/the-future-of-truth-and-misinformation-online/
Brown, S. (2021). The case for new social media business models.
Dixon, S. (2022). Number of social network users in Canada from 2018 to 2027. Statista. https://www-statista-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/statistics/260710/number-of-social-network-users-in-canada/
Dollarhide, M. (2021). Social Media: Definition, Effects, and List of Top Apps. Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/social-media.asp
Hathaway, B. (2021). ‘Likes’ and ‘shares’ teach people to express more outrage online. YaleNews. https://news.yale.edu/2021/08/13/likes-and-shares-teach-people-express-more-outrage-online
Froomkin, D. (2022). Democracy. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/democracy/Democratic-institutions
Mintzer, A. (2020). Paying attention: the attention economy. Berkeley Economic Review. https://econreview.berkeley.edu/paying-attention-the-attention-economy/
Oremus, W. (2022). How social media ‘censorship’ became a front line in the culture war. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/10/09/social-media-content-moderation/
Thi Nguyen, C. (2019). The problem of living inside echo chambers. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-problem-of-living-inside-echo-chambers-110486
Zubrow, K. (2022). Social media ethicist says regulation goes beyond moderating content. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/social-media-ethicist-tristan-harris-government-regulation-60-minutes-overtime-2022-11-06/