American poet Allen Ginsburg opens his masterpiece, Howl, with the lines
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
Presently, there seems to be a feeling that multitudes of social media users are being destroyed by madness, starving hysterically naked while looking for an angry fix of Shares, Likes and Re-Tweets, burning for a heavenly connection to those insidious yet starry dynamos of Facebook and Twitter. It is this concern that has prompted a debate on the need to regulate social media platforms and hold them accountable for the accuracy of information published by their users.
At the heart of this debate lies the view of social media as a corrupting influence on the minds of its users, as the undoing of public discourse and the erosion of the very foundations of democracy. In this post I strive to make four arguments. First, that social media platforms have never been democratic instruments, nor aspired to be such. Second, that every technological medium has been viewed as corrupting and undemocratic. Third, that when the pendulum of public discourse swings violently, we must be on guard and seek to uncover underlying interests. Fourth, that social media’s influence on opinion formation may be more limited than we think.
Social Media and Democracy
We often assume that we are the consumers of social media platforms. It is we who publish information online, it is we who follow our friends and it is we who Like and Share. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. The consumers of social media platforms are advertisers. We are the product being sold. Facebook was never meant to serve solely as a networking tool – it was meant to make profit. Facebook’s profit making stems from its ability to provide advertisers with an incredibly sophisticated tool, one that tailors advertisements to individual users based on swarms of personal data.
Notably, Facebook and Twitter never aspired to be instruments of democracy. They were bestowed with this role following the Arab Spring. It was the limited use of social media during those protests that shrouded social media platforms with the aura of civil society organizations. It is this aura that now leads us to demand that social media companies verify the information posted on their platforms, that they prevent the spreading of lies and that they prevent malicious actors from misusing their platforms.
Yet social media are merely profit seeking companies, like the Ford motor company or Head and Shoulders shampoo. Set against this backdrop, the demand that Facebook and Twitter serve as democratic instruments seems almost ludicrous. It is akin to demanding that the Ford motor company democratically provide cars to all citizens or that Head and Shoulders not discriminate against the various forms of dandruff it fights.
And yet, there are resounding calls that Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms all transition from profit making companies to publishing corporations that adhere to ethical guidelines.
These calls stem from the fear that social media platforms have an immense impact on how opinion is formed. It is supposedly through Tweets that we come to know the world and construct a sense of reality. When opinion is shaped by Tweets originating from journalists and newspapers we feel that social media is inherently good. When opinion is shaped by trolls and misinformation we feel that social media is inherently bad.
Every technological medium has been viewed as corrupting and undemocratic
The view of social media as dangerous has been strengthened over the past year given the emergence of a new rhetoric that focuses on the words “fake news”, “foreign intervention” and “echo chambers”. However, the fear of social media is not unique as every mass medium has been greeted by euphoria, fear and regulation.
During the 1940s, television was seen as a medium of mass education Journalist Edward R Murrow viewed television as a tool for enlightenment. Yet by the 1950s television executives were testifying in Congress following revelations that television shows were orchestrated drama rather than reality. Television was seen as having a corrupting influence on the morals of young people. Shows that celebrated promiscuity were seen as “magic bullets” that could at once impact the behaviour of youngsters. By 1954, Congress was holding hearings on comic books and their influence on juvenile delinquency. This decade also saw that establishment of the House Un-American Activities Committee that strived to weed out Communists from Hollywood given that films could, again, act like magic bullets and at once subvert the entire nation. Hollywood was thus the undoing of democracy.
Is the debate about social media any different from the TV scare? Or even the Red Scare of the 1950s? After all, the debate today is also fixed on a Red Scare, a Russian menace that spreads through online virility.
Some would say ‘yes’, the social media scare is different because of the fact that social media reduces the diversity of information one accesses. Unlike television or comic books, social media algorithms narrow our world view to that of an ant. On social media, we become engulfed by filter bubbles or echo chambers that ensure we only see information that adheres to our political orientation, interests and habits. Such filter bubbles, we are told, polarize public opinion, lead to political radicalization and can be manipulated so as to sow discord in foreign countries.
Yet here again, there may be nothing new under the sun. For did certain classes not always read certain newspapers? Or watch certain television channels? It was the Right Honourable Jim Hacker who described newspapers as echo chambers saying that:
‘The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country and the Financial Times is read by people who own the country”.
We may have, therefore, always existed in echo chambers re-enforced by class, occupation and chosen media channels.
When the pendulum of public discourse swings violently
The pendulum of public opinion is always in motion. After a decade of Tory leadership, New Labour was elected. After a decade of New Labour, David Cameron was elected. This is the natural progression of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. Yet it is when the pendulum of public opinion swings violently that we must seek to identify possible interests.
Consider how Twitter and Facebook were framed by the media between 2011 and 2013. They were viewed as the tools of democratic aspirations. From Libya to Cairo to Damascus, the spirit of democracy and revolution was propelled through Tweets and Posts. Now consider the framing of Twitter and Facebook in today’s media landscape. They are tools for mass deception and mass stupidly as fake news travels as fast as real news and rumours turn fiction to fact and fact to fiction.
Who stands to profit from this framing?
First, are the old media, the traditional gatekeepers who ensured we only accessed accurate information, who were guided by objective ethical guidelines and whose professionalism was above reproach. The journalists who legitimized the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, who had scores of stories regarding Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct and who knew of human rights violations in Guantanamo Bay long before these were made public.
The old media has been stranded on the island of irrelevance for some time as social media became the new gatekeeper of information. Now the tables have turned and old media is again on the rise. The past year has seen the largest growth in old media subscriptions in more than a decade. Notably, it is millennials who are flocking to old media sites and are paying for newspaper subscriptions.
Second, governments have profited from the new framing of social media. Western governments have a new/old menace- a Russian menace. In light of a menace, government must take swift action. Social media accounts must be monitored, privacy must be curtailed and shadow courts must be allowed to issue secret indictments. Even Russia has gained something -going from a bankrupt country tittering on the verge of financial collapse to being viewed as a global information superpower.
Finally, politicians have found a new scapegoat; all government mishaps can be blamed on social media.
Social Media’s Impact May be More Limited than We Think
Lastly, the influence of social media on opinion formation may be more limited than we assume. Consider for instance that our Facebook “Friends” are not really our friends. Rather, they are colleagues, former lovers, high school compatriots and other echoes of our past lives. Thus, one’s online “Friends” are likely to be much more diverse than one’s offline friends. Subsequently, we may actually be exposed to a broader range of ideas, opinions and facts online than offline.
Age also seems to play a crucial role in how social media shapes opinion. Studies suggest that younger generations may have an easier time identifying false information, ads made to look like news sites and websites that spin rumour mills. It is thus older generations that could be more susceptible to online opinion manipulation. Yet older generations are also more likely to be critical of the information they read.
Lastly, each social media user is exposed to a unique online experience as social media feeds are tailored by algorithms. One user may go online and view three Tweets: one by President Trump calling North Korea a menace, another by Theresa May calling for action against North Korea and another by the Times describing North Korean military drills. This user would assume that war is imminent. Another user may first see a video of a cat playing the piano, then a dog jumping for joy and finally a Tweet by Trump calling North Korea a menace. This user would assume that “it’s just another day at the office”.
Thus, we cannot say that all information reaches all social media users in the same way or has the same influence on all users.
There is much we still do not know about the extent to which social media influences opinion formation. What we need is a) more research b) to avoid the temptation of hyperbolic discourse and c) to better understand how offline interventions influence online behaviours. Studies suggest that media literacy, critical thinking and digital literacy will be far more successful in preventing audience manipulation than government regulation of social media. That is because literacy will help prevent all forms of online manipulation and not just those spread via Twitter, Facebook and the like.