|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.