Is Social Media Destroying Democracy?

How does our own insecurity undermine our ability to think independently?

Posted May 28, 2018

The fundamental concept of democracy, i.e., one person, one vote, is based on the assumption that each vote is more or less “independent”, that each person makes up his or her own mind and makes a personal choice. Of course, in reality, each of us is influenced by others around us, family members, co-workers, organizations we belong to, etc. In the world before Social Media, there have always been celebrities and powerful people whose words could influence the minds of thousands, and even millions of people. They were able to leverage the power of their status as high achievers in their respective specialties. Most of us, though, could only influence a small number of people. In the context of the population of an entire country, our spheres of influence were inconsequentially minuscule. The scale is the key issue.

Why have politicians never earned a lot of respect from the population as a whole? Their lives, their work, require them to use power in a much more direct way, specifically to influence people, businesses, and leaders of countries. The exercise of that power easily and often slips into manipulative behavior, for better or worse. Perhaps that is even unavoidable. Part of the price?

The real power of Social Media is its decentralized nature. Random stories, true or not, posted on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, can achieve sudden popularity and notoriety by touching the minds and hearts, not just millions, but tens and hundreds of millions of people. These are usually stories of “ordinary folks”, created by “ordinary folks”, who may or may not have even glimpsed the consequences of their actions. This kind of reach had been possible before only through centralized channels, i.e., broadcast media (TV, radio, film). Even newspapers that are dedicated to offering “all the news that’s fit to print” have centralized control – editors who curate and decide what they think people should know. This is why dictatorships cannot tolerate Social Media. Autocratic governments can’t control the content or who receives it.

Doesn’t that sound like Social Media should support and enhance the idea of democracy, that more people will be exposed to more diverse news and therefore more intelligent overall? Certainly, that is the idealistic view. Better education should lead to better opportunities for all people. But does that actually happen?

What is the history of revolutions? Who are the first to be suppressed or even executed, literally? Scholars, academics – think of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Adolph Hitler’s purges. What have we learned from these painful lessons? What about all extremist organizations today, that have no tolerance for racial, ethnic, or religious differences? Any terrorist initiative must first destroy knowledge and truth and replace that with fear.

When the spirit has room only for fear, behavior necessarily becomes conformist. How will democracy work in that environment?

What happens when extremist organizations use tools like Social Media? All tools are agnostic and can be used by bad actors as well and as easily as good actors. In fact, bad actors have an advantage because they are not constrained by legal, ethical or moral considerations. They can direct their money, knowledge, and power toward totally selfish goals. From the perspective of a bad actor, Social Media, as a decentralized, “free” messaging channel, is actually the most powerful and cost-effective tool for manipulation they have ever had.

There are no limitations on the ability to spread fear. Isn’t that the most damaging aspect of criminal or anti-social behavior? Of course, anyone who is assaulted or robbed will add fear to his or her daily routine. What about the rest of us? We all share, a little bit, in the fear, and expend increasing amounts of resources, money and human effort, to contain and restrict the spread of bad behavior. Isn’t this how the world has reacted to the terrible acts of “9/11” and consequent terrorist activity? Now, we know the power of Social Media to aid in recruiting living weapons of social destruction. Our fear is turning government policies toward supporting autocratic regimes, even where democracy has been the norm.

Fear becomes the weapon of choice and Social Media is the perfect mechanism for spreading emotionally powerful messages designed to generate an epidemic of fear. Even when the content is totally and obviously false, who cares? The message that is proclaimed – and received – highlights fear, makes us invite fear to invade all our thoughts and relationships, dramatically altering how we perceive ourselves and each other. In this environment, how can we feel we have “independent thinking”? Have we been herded into a collective bounded and defined by fear? How is this a society that functions as a true democracy?

Now what? Pointing fingers, analyzing, blaming, are easy. What do we do to change the direction of decline? We are in a war where the prize is our self-respect and the real enemy is our insecurity. The words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the context of WWII, resonate today: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” How do we find the courage to confront our fears? Fear and insecurity form a vicious, self-destructive cycle. How can we have rational discourse about our differences, to learn mutual respect?

We fear what we don’t know. How about changing that fundamental mindset, to one of seeking value and learning from what we don’t know? Is our collective ego so great, or is our collective insecurity so pervasive, that we are only comfortable when society is a reflection of what we want to believe about ourselves? Is that we what we really want? Or is that the FEAR pushing all other thoughts out of our consciousness? Out of respect for ourselves, don’t we deserve the opportunity to appreciate differences and not see them as reasons for fear?

As has been demonstrated repeatedly, many times, Social Media has tremendous power for good. How will we choose to use the tools at our disposal? Will we choose to be constructive, to improve the lives of all segments of society? Don’t we want to unleash the amazing capacity for artistic, creative talents in all aspects of life, including business, and even government? How can we support more positive, life-affirming messaging? Regardless of the stories we tell, how can we commit to the narrative of Social Media as a means of increasing the state of well-being of society? Each of us has a voice. Use it wisely!