Social Media and Democracy We may have to think out of the box
by Detlef Eckert
9 December 2020
This is not a new but an increasingly pressing issue, following the US election and also considering the rise of conspiracy theories, for instance, regarding COVID-19 or climate change. In my article back in July, I reflected on this with a view to Twitter and Facebook changing their approach to Trump by labelling disputable posts (most of the time an euphemism for a blunt lie). I recalled how we, early promotors of the internet, have under-estimated the negative impact of social media. A painful hang-over followed the euphoria about the Arab Spring. We have a problem for our democracies. Two factors drive the problem and one root cause underpins it all.
The first factor is that democracy works when people are ready to compromise, when political parties channel individual interests, and this on the basis of more or less commonly shared facts. When we share a problem definition, we can argue about the best way to tackle it. People in a democracy may have different opinions, but if they do not agree what is true and not, then—as the US election shows—you end up with a non-functioning society, with polarisation. An important point here: What is true or not is often a gradual issue. People can underpin divergent convictions with studies and statistics which contradict each other. For example, we do not know everything about the best measures against a pandemic, but we know enough to be certain that direct human contacts need to be avoided. Arguing about facts belongs to the democratic discourse but not blatant lies, ridiculous conspiracies or events that never happened.
And here comes the second factor into play. People increasingly live in their own social media bubble, i.e., they consume only information which confirm their views and consider the strangest statements as true. Within these bubbles, no critical reflection takes place. Where there is no discussion, no compromise, no reflection, a democracy cannot function and glides into an autocratic system.
Now, the past was not so much better. We have known polarisation in our societies for quite some time. People tended to only read or watch their preferred newspaper (left, right, liberal, tabloid) and news channels. However, the boundaries were not that sharp. People today spend more time on social media than reading newspapers. In addition, these platforms allow for interaction. Users can create groups (even globally, irony: global groups formed to fight globalisation) where they elevate individual opinions to undeniable facts, leading even to coordinated and sometimes violent actions, for instance, under the heading of freedom of expression and right to demonstrate. This is a new quality. Another factor is that social media have put enormous commercial pressure on traditional media, and the professional prospects for journalists are bleak. This means traditional media need to target a paying audience with razor sharp opinions, creating more bubbles.
Social media are private and profit maximising companies. They—those with a big footprint—have reluctantly accepted more responsibility. EU regulation will further clarify their obligations. In July I touched upon the difficulties to address the harmful content problem with platforms. The point with opinion bubbles is that they are legally much more difficult to grasp, but politically perhaps more important. The question is how to break into the bubbles of prejudices, lies, fake news, and conspiracy theories, so to at least make people aware of what is really going on. A big number of people, for instance, still believe that Trump won the election. So how to confront these people with the truth?
It would not be enough to only address the big platforms, as people move easily to specialised and more radical platforms, which have the 'advantage' of not being an immediate target for regulation. These smaller media often resemble a sect or a cult, shielding their members from any information not in line with the leader or the ideology.
Regulation could stipulate that each platform and each chat group must adhere to certain principles and procedures. For instance, one could impose obligations of transparency of membership, to not exclude people with different opinions or to accept labels or corrections from authorised sources. In case of noncompliance, regulation could instruct telecom operators or internet providers to remove their servers or websites from the internet.
The problem is in the details. Who can introduce different opinions into these closed shops? What are the criteria? How to ensure that seemingly correct facts are really accurate? There is a fine line to censor ship. My suggestion would be to focus on the most dangerous claims and on obvious and grave lies.
There is an even bigger problem, namely the root cause I mentioned. This is the psychology of humans to want to see what they believe. Even if they recognise a lie of their leader, see the damage that is being inflicted by their claims, see that their apocalyptic prediction did not materialize, they will find reasons - as strange as they are - to ignore and deny them and continue to believe what they want to believe.
Maybe the only long-term answer is education. Some argue that we need to overcome social injustice, which is a valid point, but one should not explain the world only with materialism (a common mistake by the left). It seems that our societies produce a sense of ‘anger’ and ‘aggressiveness’ which is difficult to contain and which leads people into these hate groups. Maybe we need to think out of the box as traditional approaches such as regulation do not seem to tackle the root cause. Why not trying to encourage civil societies to mount resistance, literally to infiltrate these circles and tear down the disinformation wall?
The conclusion is that we have a substantial problem with social media bubbles for our democracies. One answer is to shrug shoulders and see it as a price for liberty (the liberty to believe in the most stupid things you can imagine) and focus on illegal content. Another answer is to think hard about it and try to penetrate the bubble with facts and reasons, but cleverly, so they could impact people. In the long run, better education might get us further. The vision of a more civilised society, where people listen to each other and where a President Trump could only occur as character in a bad cartoon, is probably too much to hope for.