The Social Dilemma is a 2020 Netflix documentary about the effects of social media the 21st century. As part of our DP course, Information Technology in a Global Society, our students have discussed and reflected on this documentary resulting in a series of blog posts that address this question: To what extent is social media an existential threat to democracy in the 21st century?
Class response #1:
Social media has become a prime target for spreading misinformation and propaganda in recent years in the interest of benefitting candidates or parties come an election. As the internet as a whole is largely unregulated, has a certain level of anonymity and not held to the same quality standards as typical media, it has become a target for propagating misinformation. This becomes even worse, as recent studies have suggested that social media users are more likely to believe misinformation of the COVID-19 pandemic than people who learn of the news through traditional outlets. Whether this is a result of a psychological difference or the abundance of mistruths on social media, it seems that many social media users do not critically evaluate whether the information they see is true or not. There are real examples of misinformation spiralling out of control - like the Clinton email scandal, or things which were once comedic and satirical becoming truth - Pizzagate.
Source: Matthew Haag & Maya Salam, The NY Times, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/22/us/pizzagate-attack-sentence.html
In addition, social media companies have spent years and billions of dollars developing machine learning algorithms designed to maximise user attention and engagement by ordering and recommending posts on social media. They collect data based on the way users interact with the service to learn how they react to certain types of information, so the algorithms can optimise the service for the 3 goals of all social media: engagement, growth and monetisation. As social media users interact positively with certain posts in certain communities, the algorithms will continue to recommend similar posts to maintain and improve those 3 goals. If the machine learning algorithm sees you liking something, it'll keep giving it to you because that's all it knows you like. In context of democracy, this process increases polarisation between political communities in some issues, creating an artificial "echo chamber", where the algorithms reinforce a confirmation bias that polarises both ends of the political spectrum.
However, social media by nature allows people to connect and interact despite geographic separation. It fosters a more worldly, globally engaged community where users can understand what goes on in the world and in places and topics where typical media may not be covered. Users will see a more holistic version of their society which can represent any belief, any country, any person. Social media empowers the global community to create change, to alert people to issues which mainstream media may choose not to report on. The same freedom of speech which can spread misinformation is a powerful tool to disseminate correct information to a wide, otherwise unreachable audience.
The role of a democratic politician is to represent their constituents, and in years past many politicians would rely on word-of-mouth and personal experience to determine what is best for their electorate and people. Social media can be a powerful tool to allow politicians to connect and better understand what the people they represent want. If used correctly, social media can be a force for good and enable politicians to create better change in their democracy.
Overall, social networks pose a real, existential threat to democracy. Social media algorithms are optimised to take advantage of fundamental characteristics of human nature to increase user engagement, and in doing so they turn our own nature against us to threaten the basis of democracy. It influences how we vote, who we vote for and who and what we believe - even if it's wrong. It simultaneously pushes communities apart on the political spectrum and brings them together over thousands of kilometres. Despite this, social media can be influential for the good, but it requires a significant rethink by social media companies, developers and designers to differently monetise and redesign their programs to avoid the adverse effects that their algorithms have indirectly created.