Culture Wars/Current Controversies

What’s social media really doing to democracy?

What’s social media really doing to democracy? Tobias Rose-Stockwell on algorithms, viral information, and manufactured outrage.
Rodion Kutsaiev
Despite certain reelection, Cambodia’s longtime autocratic prime minister, Hun Sen, deployed a team of Facebook trolls to spread disinformation and threaten his opponents ahead of general elections in July. It was nothing new for Hun: In power from 1985 until handing power to his son after the election, Hun’s party first built a “Cyber War Room” to manage social-media propaganda a decade ago. It was nothing new globally, either: Almost as long as social media has been around, authoritarian rulers from the Philippines to Turkey to Russia have understood they can manipulate it to undermine elections.

Meanwhile, misinformation, disinformation, and outrage have become commonplace on Facebook, Twitter, and other social-media platforms everywhere—including in the world’s most developed democracies. In 2016, a Russian campaign to spread lies and sow doubts about the U.S. presidential election got sustained global media attention. And in 2018, a former Facebook manager testified to the U.S. Congress that the company had internal records documenting how some had used the site to propagate false information and foment violence leading up to and during the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Yet democratic life has been under pressure across the West since before social media was widespread at all. In the United States alone, partisan polarization and rancor have been intensifying since before the internet entirely. And around the world, as Freedom House has reported, there’s been a pronounced decrease in measures of democracy for 17 years straight. Social media can’t be the cause of all this. So what’s the connection?

Tobias Rose-Stockwell is the author of Outrage Machine: How Tech Amplifies Discontent, Disrupts Democracy—and What We Can Do About It. Rose-Stockwell says the rise of social-media platforms has affected democratic life in a number of ways. Displacing the traditional news media’s role in creating public narratives about the news—not least, political news—social media hasn’t just diversified those narratives; it’s effectively shattered any of the common understandings of current events a vital democracy needs. At the same time, the work of the traditional news media itself has been increasingly conditioned by social-media platforms, often reporting on viral content from them as news—and often with the low accuracy and high indignation common to them. The platforms meanwhile rely on algorithms to decide what content to promote, and these algorithms typically boost content that relies on moral and emotional anger to attract and retain attention—and bring in advertising revenue, putting moral and emotional anger at the heart of their business models.

None of this means democracy is doomed, Rose-Stockwell says, or that social media can’t be reformed. In fact, the modern West has been tested in similar ways before—and succeeded in transforming dysfunctional viral networks into powerful knowledge networks.

This article is part of a series in partnership with the Human Rights Foundation. Rose-Stockwell will be a speaker at the Oslo Freedom Forum in New York this week.

Michael Bluhm: On a lot of indicators, democracy’s been in decline across the economically developed world for more than a decade and a half—longer than social media’s been around. How do you see the specific challenge it’s meant for democratic life?

Tobias Rose-Stockwell: There are certainly a lot of challenges in the mix, most of which, it’s true, go back further than social media. But social media has become a huge force in the contemporary world. And in the forms it currently takes, I think, it’s incompatible with democratic norms.

It’s a complex question, but it comes down to people’s ability to inhabit a shared world. Democracies require all kinds of diversity, including diversity in interpretations of current events. But they also require a certain shared understanding of them—a shared understanding of what is and isn’t happening. And they require a certain level of trust—trust in the democratic project, trust in the fundamental integrity of voting systems, trust in the fundamental integrity of information systems, and trust in each other. Social media has been toxic to shared understanding and trust.

Of course, the ability to manipulate shared understandings of current events has long been one of the most effective tools of authoritarians—and people with authoritarian dispositions or aspirations. In advanced democracies, journalists have traditionally limited that ability. They’ve traditionally represented an independent arbitration of the facts and called out political propaganda. Social media has given radically updated tools to rulers in authoritarian countries, and it’s fundamentally disrupted the work of journalists in democratic countries.

Digital media generally, and social media in particular, has shown great potential—to broaden public conversation in democracies, to bring greater diversity of ideas and opinions to them, to be a real force of dynamism. But social media has also shown that it can be extremely effective at fragmenting shared understanding and trust—to the point where it’s now extremely difficult for people to recognize for themselves when democratic norms are being violated, to recognize together when their democratic system is breaking down, and organize together to fix it.

Bluhm: How’s social media done this?

Rose-Stockwell: Misinformation and disinformation play a big role. Misinformation just means distributing false information. Disinformation is different: the strategic creation and structured deployment of misinformation to advance an agenda. Misinformation and disinformation are now serious problems in democratic societies.

Now, it may seem contradictory, but democratic societies actually need a certain degree of misinformation or disinformation; they need people to be able to get things wrong, so the society as a whole can develop and maintain the ability to sort out true from false, right from wrong. The danger of misinformation or disinformation isn’t in their mere presence; it’s in the ratio of bad information to good information increasing to the point where it’s overwhelming.

Camilo Jimenez
More from Tobias Rose-Stockwell at The Signal:

Outrage as such isn’t the problem. In fact, the existence of outrage is at least as important to democratic societies as certain measures of bad information are. Outrage is a human experience that democracy is designed to be responsive to. … The trouble isn’t people experiencing outrage on account how they understand and feel about an issue; it’s people understanding and feeling about the issue in a way that’s fundamentally conditioned by outrage. So the question is, how can we ensure that the outrages we experience are fundamentally real, proportionate, and important to address?”

This dynamic doesn’t entirely come from the algorithm …; the dynamic works because of the ways the human brain works. The algorithm is highly responsive, for example, to the way we process social information. We tend to be innately interested in information that has to do with status or gossip. If someone is getting called out online, say, that information is like sugar for people’s brains. It’s like sugar, it seems because that kind of social information was important to survival in our evolution. So the algorithm manipulates people by targeting their brains in very precise ways.”

It’s important to understand how journalism itself has changed with social media. Social media now has a mediating function for society as a whole, not least because journalists use it so heavily—especially Twitter—and journalists are still the people most responsible for informing us. This is how the dynamics of social media seep into traditional news coverage. So, even if you’re not on Twitter yourself, you are on it, in a sense, if you consume traditional news media. If you’re reading, watching, or listening to the news, that information has usually been filtered through social media.”

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