Given all the events happened recently, with the pandemic, widened political division, many people from different political perspectives wonder how social media affect democratic values.
While for those who know me well, I often try to stay out of politics, but I recently came across the following article from Spyros Kapralos, a European Studies student from the University of Amsterdam. This article will go through an analysis of how much social media can affect Democracy in our daily lives.
From the late 18th century media have acquired a prominent role as citadels in democratic regimes. Many times, they have been referred to as watch dogs of democratic values since their role is to check political authorities as well as institutions and to inform the citizenry about any abuse of power. With the advent of technological breakthroughs and the emergence of new communication platforms such as Face Book, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp, the role of traditional media became less prominent. Social media platforms offered people the opportunity to gain access to information at a rapid speed. In the 21st century social media prevailed over traditional media and became the main source of information for younger and older generations. The outbreak of Covid 19 pandemic brought whole societies and economies to their knees and forced governments to implement strict lockdown policies and social distancing measures. Even in these tubulous times social media not only facilitated communication between people but in some cases, they paved the way for creation of new jobs. I would like to mention that platforms like Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp belong to the same person namely Mark Zuckerberg. Acquiring control over them Zuckerberg is responsible for the information flow. Owned by a single person manipulation becomes easier. As a result, some of the information contained in these platforms remains unfiltered or it is deliberately used to confuse citizens. Consequently, they are responsible for the widespread misinformation. Thus, they undermine democracy.
The aim of this essay is to provide insights on the extent to which social media can endanger democracies. In order to do this, I will try to provide a concrete answer to the following question “To which extent do social media undermine democratic values during Covid 19 crisis?” So as to answer the main question, the following question will be formed: “How do social media impact public opinion?”. Furthermore, liberalism will be utilized as the main theoretical framework for the analysis, which will help the reader to understand the link between the pandemic, social media and public opinion. Regarding the sources for this essay a variety of academic sources such as books, case law and articles will bestow the background information necessary so that the reader can follow the essay’s reasoning and argumentation. The conclusion will entail the summary of the information shared throughout this essay as well as the answer of the secondary question that will get back to the main question.
III. How do social media impact public opinion?
Social media are not good or bad on their own, themselves constitute a neutral tool. Like any other tool they can be used by its owner either positively or negatively depending on their user’s intentions. Unfortunately, third parties utilize these platforms for their own benefits disregarding the negative consequences on their fellow citizens causing upheaval and societal division. More specifically, because of social media marginalized and extremists’ groups are presented the opportunity to get their message along. As a result, populistic views and ideologies that otherwise would not be heard are on the rise. A further example is the case of Covid 19 pandemic, where some individuals believing in conspiracy theories regarding vaccination programs and as a consequence, they either participate in anti-vaccination movements or they circulate further misinformation through these platforms causing further disturbance and havoc to an already divided society.
The widespread of misinformation is another weakness of social media. They become a misinformation hub where individuals can find others sharing similar beliefs. There is not any plurality of ideas since the members of the group share similar or same ideology. It has been found out that those individuals, who use Facebook and YouTube as their main source of information are more prompt to believe in conspiracy theories and information based on unproven facts. To make matters worse frequent use of social media causes distress, anxiety and worry to their users. There are two different points on this statement. On the one hand excessive use of social media indeed leads to worry and anxiety, whereas others claim that social media have a positive impact on worry and distress. During the pandemic it has been observed that social media are more frequently used than ever before. Frequent use of these platforms equals higher level of misinformation because they are fertile ground for the circulation of fabricated stories. In other words, social media can stir the exertion of civic power and influence the agenda setting. That is why there is a constant struggle for the control of those platforms by political institutions and private enterprises. The one, who exerts control over the narrative and the information can excess control over whole societies.
IV. To which extent do social media undermine democratic values during Covid 19 crisis?
As mentioned previously, social media are a neutral tool, whose utilization depends on their users’ intentions. The problem emerges when different groups such as political parties, scientists and technologic companies employ them to stir public opinion according to their interests. In case of political authorities, they try through social media to establish or to consolidate their power through the divide and rule method. Especially, in the case of Covid 19 pandemic the cleavage between vaccinated and unvaccinated citizens is growing. With the pandemic outbreak as an excuse, governments around the globe were able not only to limit people’s free movement but also, they passed legislation, which stands against fundamental democratic values such as privacy. Here I would like to add that social media are used by political leaders as a surveillance method. Without being aware or deliberately ignoring it citizens are being observed by the authorities via social media platforms. Nonetheless democratic values are not threatened only from within because of certain governmental practices but external actors attempt to undermine them so that they can achieve their own aims. Huge technologic corporations such Google and Facebook are constantly gathering data about people’s preferences. These data are later monetized and sold to third party companies in order to promote their products.
A second area to consider is that these tech giants are in constant struggle to gain favor of the public. Skilful spin doctors post well designed fabricated stories resulting to widespread of misinformation and fake news. This incident has tremendous results on people because it blurs the boundaries between truth and deception. Fabrication of information leads to bias or the creation of echo chambers or filter bubbles. That in turn leads to isolation of people and makes their manipulation easier. At this point I would like to argue that social media platforms and especially Facebook and Twitter, the most prominent among them when used for political discussions and news’ consumption, affect the information environment of many politically active citizens. One group, which is heavily targeted on social media platforms is the youth. Brought up in the digital era adultolescence use the internet as their only source of information. For their own convenience many young people avoid to read traditional newspapers or longer texts. Hence, social media and apparently Facebook and Twitter are the preferable source of information for younger generations because they are quick and convenient to read. Another group which falls under heavy bombardment of social media are the elderly. As elder people are less familiarized with social media but they use Facebook, it is harder for them to filter the information they consume. That being the case many of them fall victims of misinformation. Two characteristic examples that stress the importance of social media’s impact on individuals as well as their tremendous consequences on democracies are Brexit and the attack of the Capitol in the United States. In both cases the role of social media was prominent and public opinion was stirred by fabricated information. In the case of Brexit, the British electorate was constantly bombarded with populistic and xenophobic information on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. Similar to Brexit the attack on capitol was the result of American population’s deception that Biden’s victory was unjust and that he had not any legitimacy to undertake U.S. A’s presidency. An image that has been deliberately created and circulated by Biden’s adversaries. Both cases indicated that our democratic values are under threat and that social media can become a disastrous weapon if they fall to the wrong hands.
V. Viewing the social media Pandora’s box from a liberal perspective
Liberalism as a theoretical concept supports the idea that cooperation between states, agreement and prosperity are possible even if there are impediments. Even though, social media have certain drawbacks liberals are certain that they contribute to democratization processes. To be more specific they enable direct democracy in the form of E – democracy. According to Hague, Harrop and McCormick E – democracy is “a form of democratic expression through which all those with an interest in a problem or an issue can express themselves via the internet or social media”. Particularly during Covid 19 pandemic, where political leadership imposed stricter distancing measures E – democracy achieved through social media empowers the citizen’s mobilization and facilitates the Checks and balances system among political institutions. Hague et al. describe Checks and balances as “an arrangement in which government institutions are given powers that counter – balance one another, obliging them to work together in order to govern and make decisions”. The Checks and balance system is of great importance as it impedes institutions and governments to accumulate all the power or to make abuse of that power.
Liberals view social media platforms as the missing link, which accredits cooperation among countries and nations in a globalized world. They claim that Covid 19 pandemic is something temporal and that no matter the difficulties and the hardships it has caused so far it presents new opportunities. Here I would like to express my skepticism regarding their claims. To begin with, the pandemic has cost many people their lives, has brought whole economies to their knees, has isolated people and is responsible for societal division. Although liberals like to portrait the world in a more romantic way and are willing to ignore certain aspects, it should be pointed out that the pandemic and the extensive use of social media have detrimental effects. Social media platforms have become ideological battlefields between democratic, authoritarian and hybrid regimes. The situation becomes more complex in the case of hybrid regimes. Hybrid regimes can be identified as “Political systems that have some of the appearances of being democratic, but where institutions, processes, laws and policies are manipulated to keep rulers or elite groups in power”. For instance, one of the most prominent examples of a hybrid regime in Europe is that of Hungary. Victor Orban’s fidesz party dismantled the presses’ freedom of speech, gained the control over the social media platforms and became the sole information provider. Consequently, there is not plurality of ideas in Hungary and every information circulated undergoes extensive control by the regime.
So far, this essay attempted to explain how social media undermine democratic values. By employing liberalism as theoretical framework it tried to establish how Covid 19 pandemic, public opinion and social media are intertwined. In the first part of the analysis the focus was laid on the question how social media impact public opinion. A possible answer to this question would be the following: “Although themselves are a neutral tool; spin-doctors promote the circulation of fabricated stories based on peoples’ perception. In fact, they target mostly younger generations who are brought up in the digital era and sometimes they do not prove the validity of the source from which the information they consume derives. Another of their target groups are older people, who are not well acquainted with the new technologies, yet they use Face Book without filtering the information they consume. As a result, misinformation stirs public opinion towards the direction the spin doctors have designed.” The second part which contained the research question on which this essay is based, tackles the extent to which social media undermine democratic values. As mentioned in the introduction the answer to the question of how social media impact public opinion would lead to the answer of the research question. Thus, a possible answer to the question: “To which extent do social media undermine democratic values during Covid 19 crisis?” would be the following: “Democracy is a system that can function properly, when the public engages in the political procedures. In order to effectively participate to policy making procedures, citizens must be sufficiently informed. However, as it becomes apparent certain groups both internally and externally try to blur public opinion and stir it to a direction that suits their own interests. As a result, social media are employed by them to distract, to confuse and to divide the public. This is why it can be stated that social media when used inappropriately undermine democratic values.” Finally, it could be stated that so as to protect democratic values, even in calamities such as Covid 19 pandemic it is essential for people to learn how to distinguish between real facts and fabricated stories, when they use social media platforms.
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