• Sona Chaturvedi

Social Media is Hijacking Democracy

Image credit: Getty Images.

The irony that I am writing this piece for distribution on Twitter, one of the biggest social media platforms ever invented, is not lost on me. If I was writing this for a print publication, it would eventually find its way online, as all news, entertainment and lifestyle publications do. The acceptance of that reality doesn’t mean that social media isn’t still a dangerous threat. It will remain a part of our lives forever. There are new advances every day for keyboard warriors to participate in a relatively anonymous, online dystopian existence. Anonymity allows for those with a disingenuous agenda to push any type of toxicity they choose. Once promoted and used as a way to keep in touch with family and friends, gather recipes, and find fellow like-minded people who share the same interests, social media has since devolved into rapid exchanges of misinformation. In the recent study: Platforms, Protests and the Challenge of Networked Democracy, researchers found what was once, “perceived as an equalizing force for disenfranchised individuals without a voice, social networks evolved into a platform for fake news and propaganda, empowering disruptive voices, ideologies and messages. Social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and Google hold the potential to alter civic engagement, thus essentially hijacking democracy, by influencing individuals toward a particular way of thinking.” At its core, social media disrupts physical social engagement. As humans, it’s natural to want interaction that is not merely conducted in front of a computer, phone or tablet. The desire to belong to a group is a basic need. Social media discourages this type of communication, making it easier to become trapped in a cycle of lies and distortions fueled by propagandists. Those in power skew the messaging. They always have, however, social media allows them to reach millions in a manner of seconds. There is no fact-checking. Social media hasn’t leveled the playing field. It has merely served as a vehicle to amplify false messaging. Communication is the ultimate control any group can have. The rise of authoritarianism and populism around the world can easily be traced directly to social media. It is used effectively by those who can quite literally topple governments by spreading divisive false messaging.

They helped to alter the 2020 election in this country. Withholding information online is just as dangerous as widely disseminating lies. Freedom House found that social media companies most often implicated in the rise of “digital authoritarianism” are headquartered in the United States. It’s not surprising America is one of the leaders in the spread of populist messaging. We are, in theory, a democratic nation. But we fall into the false trappings of greed, money, power and corruption and are easily duped. Freedom of information is crucial, and it is heavily censored in authoritarian nations. The puzzling aspect of American society to the global community is that the information here is readily available.

Yet few feel the need to access the truth.

The continued divide in America, and the GOP war on facts, makes it impossible to assume a leadership role to respond to this problem. But it must be done. If we don’t step up and take the lead, another country will. Norway, for example, has made headway in this area, addressing the impact of all media on the sustainability of democracy. It’s incredible that a country like the United States, which claims to be a representative government, is unwilling to tackle the daily untruths disseminated on cable television, let alone social media. But, then again, it’s just another example of a lie we tell ourselves and the world about who we really are, and what we are capable of, without actually doing the work to change. When/if this nation becomes an autocracy, social media and the reluctance to address these issues will be one of, if not, the leading reason for our downfall. Like it or not, America is sleepwalking while other democracies take the lead. And we’re doing it one click at a time.