Can social media reform save American democracy?


When social media took off in the mid-2000s, retweeting, sharing, and liking posts seemed to give ordinary citizens the ability to share their opinions widely. The problem, according to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, is that online social networks didn’t really end up giving everyone the voice that many thought they would.

“It enabled four groups to tap into the viral dynamics of social media. This is the far right, the far left, trolls and Russian intelligence,” says Haidt, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

“So, these four groups have had a great time since 2009, using the new viral dynamics of Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. At the same time, 80% of the people in the middle country feel fear, attack, frustration, disgust. And so, they speak less.”

Successful democracies are generally associated with strong institutions, shared stories, and broad social networks with “high levels of trust,” but social media weakens all three, according to Haidt.

“You’re going from just a polarized democracy, which we had in the early 2010s, to one where norms change to become all-out war everywhere, all the time,” he says.

You cannot have a deliberative democracy when there is no room for deliberation. And you cannot have a liberal democracy when the illiberal left and illiberal right dominate their factions.”

FILE – In this file photo taken on February 18, 2018, a view of a business center believed to be a troll factory social media site in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Samuel Abrams, a professor of politics and social sciences at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, agrees that social media has been detrimental to democracy.

“These things were as dangerous as they can be. It was very bad for the country, incredibly bad for free speech, the spread of ideas, real discourse, democratic standards and civility. It was a disaster,” Abrams says. You don’t get a diversity of points of view. It’s very hard to hear the other side.”

Make a difference

If he had to risk a guess, Haidt envisions a future America that looks a lot like a Latin American democracy—that is, “an unstable democracy built with flawed institutions of little popular respect.”

“I think we’re going to have many more constitutional crises, a deterioration of trust and an increase in political violence and political ineffectiveness, unless we make these major changes,” he says.

FILE - US Senator Pat Leahy (D-VT) shows a retweet by then US President Donald Trump about an alleged Russian troll account, on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 31, 2017.

FILE – US Senator Pat Leahy (D-VT) shows a retweet by then US President Donald Trump about an alleged Russian troll account, on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 31, 2017.

The changes he would like to see include replacing traditional partisan primaries, which tend to reward politicians who serve extremists in their party, with one-on-one contests open to all candidates regardless of political affiliation. The top four winners advance to the general election. It’s already happening in Alaska, where residents voted in November 2020 to adopt open primaries and classified elections.

The second step is to make social media less harmful to democracy, he says, by requiring identity verification. People can still post anonymously or using a fake name, but they have to show that they are a real person in a specific country.

“At the moment, anyone in the world, including Russia, can create hundreds of thousands of accounts per day, many of which will not be deleted and they can do whatever they want. It’s crazy, ”says Haidt. “It is madness that we allow our public space to be filled with fake people with bad motives.”

Twitter says it’s working to combat fake accounts and misinformation. Last month, CEO Parag Agrawal posted on that social media platform Comment half a million spam accounts daily and millions of suspected fake accounts being shut down each week. He said that Twitter is constantly updating its systems and rules to remove as much spam as possible and that fake accounts make up less than 5% of its users. Meanwhile, the company’s head of safety and integrity announced the new Twitter The disinformation policy of the crisis With the aim of raising the credibility of information and slowing down the spread of misleading content during crises.

File - This set of images shows the logos of the social media platforms Facebook and Twitter.

File – This set of images shows the logos of the social media platforms Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook removed 1.6 billion fake accounts in the first three months of 2022, according to the company’s quarterly transparency report released in May. The social media company said its goal is to remove as many fake accounts as possible, with priority given to accounts seeking to cause harm through spam or financial motives. Facebook said in its quarterly report that it continues to improve its oversight processes.

New generation

Meanwhile, Abrams has some hope for the future. Fifteen years ago, he used to see a lot of political polarization among his students in class discussions, he says, but he’s noticed that starting to fade a few years ago.

“They don’t like these competing narratives. They realize they’re out there. They realize they’re dangerous or unhappy with them. The data shows that’s true left and right,” says Abrams, referring to members of Generation Z — people born between 1997 and 2012. , and the oldest will be 25 years old in 2022.

They are also the least politically partisan of any group we now have in the nation. They are overwhelmingly middlemen. They are largely pragmatic, not interested in identity politics. So what they’re trying to do is find common ground… I think this group has come of age and woke up in the process [the Donald] trump [era] And they say, “This is crazy.” They don’t like that.”

Haidt holds a different view of Generation Z, describing them as “depressed, anxious and fragile”. Either way, he says, as long as the system remains the same, it doesn’t matter if young people are increasingly interested in building consensus.

“As long as a few people can intimidate the majority, as long as a small number of people can intimidate the moderates on their part, things will not be moderate, even if the average person becomes more moderate,” Haidt says. As long as social media is what it is, our country will fail.

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