The Social Media Revolution: Impacts Risks and Opportunities for Democracy - Seeker's Thoughts

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The Social Media Revolution: Impacts Risks and Opportunities for Democracy

Social media's rise and success have marked a new era of mass communication. Social media platforms have had an immense effect on society - from changing trends to uniting people behind a common cause.

Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile


Social media enables individuals to amplify their voices, leading to movements for political reform. Unfortunately, however, it can also be used to spread misinformation and cause violence.


1. The Power of the Crowd


Social media has emerged as an invaluable means of connecting individuals through mass communications channels. Merriam-Webster defines social media as: "forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking or microblogging) through which users create online communities to exchange ideas, information, personal messages or any other content".

Social media's significance in politics lies in its capacity to connect a wide array of audiences via user-created content. Furthermore, its speed makes it challenging for political actors to keep pace, leaving public audiences constantly exposed to a flood of conflicting information.


As part of the monetization strategies of social media websites, popular sites have found ways to capitalize on advertising revenue streams to monetize their platforms such as advertisements. Facebook and Twitter were pioneers in doing this while Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, TikTok, etc. soon followed suit resulting in them now having access to some of the richest and most trackable user data ever imagined. These platforms use data to understand when their audiences are most active, and distribute content at optimal times - helping companies and even politicians to realize the highest return on their advertising investment and election campaign.


Social media offers individuals unprecedented ways of engaging with politicians and other influential figures. Users can send private or direct messages, share photos/videos/live chats etc - leading to increased citizen engagement with political leaders as a result, leading to more active and informed voting pools, with citizens' voices heard on issues that matter to them.


2. The Power of the Platform


Some social media platforms, like Discord, encourage users to form and join communities within them. While this trend may appear positive for users' engagement with one another and content creation and sharing, some analysts suspect these platforms are also being used to manipulate politics and disseminate false news; recent work by Oxford's Computational Propaganda Research Project and Sam Wooley at Digital Intelligence Lab demonstrate its breadth and scope; their business models reliant on user data for content monetization and advertising promotion are also contributing factors to these manipulations.


Filter bubbles and echo chambers, low entry bars, aggregate knowledge about users, lack of fact-checking, information cascades, and automatic recommendation algorithms make the platform an invaluable weapon in the hands of political actors seeking to exert influence and undermine democratic principles and institutions.

Foreign interference or exploiting platforms further exacerbate domestic polarization while further undermining trust in democracy.


Platform power may not be as directly tangible as that exerted by governments and political actors, yet it can still be immensely powerful. Debates surrounding how they came to exert this force remain ongoing and complex; one theory proposes that their popularity has given rise to soft forms of cultural influence similar to brands or celebrities; another theory proposes they may possess soft forms of cultural power similar to brands or celebrities, as well as their once benevolent aura that associated them with technological progress and the future that has since been marred by allegations of disinformation campaigns, data collection practices and anti-competitive behavior - this perception has become marred over time by accusations related to disinformation campaigns, data collection practices as well as anti-competitive conduct by their partners.


3. The Power of the Advertiser


Social media's rapid rise was paralleled by an explosion of advertising, with platforms like Facebook and Twitter offering their users ways to monetize personal content with ads - ultimately becoming multibillion-dollar businesses with significant power to influence political landscape.


This power poses significant threats and challenges to democracy, with its capacity to fuel ideological polarization, escalate fear and hatred, and spread conspiracies. Furthermore, social echo chambers may form that more easily detach themselves from reality and truth.


Media also contributes to inequality by providing voice and power to those typically left out from more conventional forms of media, leading to the growth of "alt-right" and "alt-left" movements rooted in social media culture and permitting neo-fascists or authoritarians to exploit disinformation strategies for their political gain.


Social media draws public attention to politically-charged issues and deepens political polarization by spreading extreme viewpoints at an alarmingly rapid rate, increasing the chance of violent incidents such as terrorist attacks and mass shootings and sparking social unrest that threatens democratic consolidation.


Pew Research found that majority of respondents across most nations polled believed social media had been beneficial to democracy; especially so in Singapore, Malaysia, Poland, Sweden and Hungary where at least 65% believe it has been. Americans however were the exception; 64% held this opinion.


4. The Power of the Brand


Internet and social media platforms are immensely powerful tools in the hands of those seeking to strengthen democracy as well as those looking to undermine it. They are used by grassroots movements and activists working towards increasing participation rates and challenging racial injustice, and by organized hate groups seeking to marginalize and silence others. Furthermore, populist politicians such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines demonstrate how social media can also be leveraged to spread anti-democratic or authoritarian narratives on their platforms.


Social media can have a destabilizing effect in weak democracies. Because these platforms reach so far and information spreads virally, governing regimes may struggle to control them effectively and combat malignant use of them. As a result, leaders using these platforms are able to mobilize followers against liberal norms, promote divisive narratives against liberal freedoms, and undermine trust in democratic systems.


Furthermore, these platforms often foster divisive and polarizing politics through their marketing structures. Their content marketing structures often target young users with strong political opinions who tend to use these platforms as an arena to express them - creating an encouraging feedback loop of nonrational behavior and amplified voices otherwise silenced by government institutions. This phenomenon is especially noticeable on platforms with advertising-based revenue models like Facebook and Twitter; their business models may evolve over time to shift away from eyeball accumulation toward brand building with compelling content creation for which subscribers might pay an annual subscription subscription service model;


5. The Power of the Message


Social media provides an outlet to spread messages far and wide with great impact, helping mobilize masses of people behind an idea or spark revolutions. But they also can spread misinformation or distort reality; for instance, Black Lives Matter managed to reach an impressive audience, yet still requires further work; social media should not be seen as the sole solution; it can be leveraged both by grassroots movements as well as authoritarian regimes alike.


Even though the majority of nations surveyed believe social media has enhanced democracy, a median of 84% indicate access to the internet makes it easier for governments or other actors to manipulate people with false information and rumors. This can be explained by its asymmetrical nature - gathering together like-minded people into relatively closed communities that enable polarized groups to spread violence quickly while spreading frightening rumors at an alarming speed. As such, these platforms aid governments or actors in manipulating people into fearing enemies more.


Social media's capacity to adapt and generate multiplier effects makes it easy for messages from minority influencers to spread far wider than they originally intended - an alarming trend which has proven detrimental to democracy in the past.



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