The internet has opened up a virtually unlimited world of information to its users, and in turn, social media has availed its users of a similarly boundless world of “people.” Social media exposes people to a barrage of information, solicited and not. A person’s searches, views, and browsing history yield “personalized” suggestions that are directly or indirectly related to their original engagement. This is perhaps common knowledge. Less explored is that the use of social media facilitates attacks on democracy, beginning with its monitoring of users’ activities. This infringement on their privacy is linked to cyberbullying, whether in the form of individual harassment or identity theft. Also of note is that one can share virtually anything on social media. To be certain, social media companies fact check claims shared on their platforms, but by the time a “fact” is recognized as unfactual or incendiary, it has often already been widely disseminated. All of the above represents a dire affront to the liberal order.
The ostensible purpose of social media is to give individuals a voice. However, as these platforms have evolved in recent years, users have taken advantage of this privilege through the so-called multiplier effect, opening the floodgates to fake news and propaganda. The multiplier effect allows messages shared across social media platforms the opportunity to become “larger in terms of support for a particular person or a particular policy” (Olaniran and Williams, 2020). This development ties in to a larger change across media: audiences who once passively consumed the news now have the opportunity to be not just an audience but also producers and broadcasters, transforming the political landscape and ultimately fraying the threads of democracy.
While democracy is rooted in citizens’ participating in the democratic process, social media has blurred the lines between democratic participation and populism, creating an atmosphere of political polarization and encouraging hegemony. Not only does social media open the door to a worldwide audience as never possible before, but also removes the specter of censorship. People feel less inhibited and are able to speak their minds on social media, in large part because of the anonymity that is afforded them. While traditional media held the role of gatekeeper and mediator, that role is voided on social media platforms. Messages broadcast by those with loyal followings are retweeted and shared incessantly regardless of their agenda. Bots don’t help. Their role in rapidly disseminating and replicating messages play a direct role in fraying democracy. The combination of misinformation and automation is one of the greatest threats to democracy because it allows extremist groups to rapidly spread their ideologies. By the time information is fact-checked, it already has been so widely promulgated that any damage done is irreversible.
In order to manage the unwieldy growth of social media and its influence on democracy, it is crucial to separate fact from fiction. Dialogue on social media platforms should remain open but also must be constructive, and subject to the same ethical rules as traditional news and journalistic outlets. After all, freedom of speech is meant to foster individuality and the universal good, which requires the imposition of certain guardrails. (Of course, the danger of censorship requires that authorities tread carefully in managing social media.) In his article “Making the Internet Safe for Democracy,” Francis Fukuyama (2021) discusses some of the efforts that have been employed to reduce the power of social media. These include legislation to break up and prevent the establishment of monopolies like Facebook and Google, and the governmental review and regulation of content on social media platforms. Lawmakers have also enabled users to transfer data between platforms, thereby limiting those platforms’ use of personal data. These efforts are important and go beyond correcting abstract problems; the global effects of social media and its impact on democracy are indeed seen on the political forefront with former President Trump’s involvement in the 2021 United States Capitol attack, and in Russian bots’ foreshadowing that country’s invasion of Ukraine.
The deleterious effects of social media are of course not limited to macro matters like the erosion of democracy. Social media also has negative mental health effects on its users. Excessive use may result in depression, anxiety, loneliness, and even suicide. Filters and apps that alter appearances set unrealistic standards, hindering acceptance of self and others. One of the most effective ways to overcome feelings of social media-caused inadequacy is to raise awareness about the unreality of these platforms, especially with adolescents. Cyberbullying is another danger of social media, also disproportionately impacting young people. Before the digital world dominated people’s lives, bullying was limited to school, sports, and work environments, but ‘digital identities’ open individuals to cyberbullying anywhere. Hackett’s (2017) “Cyberbullying and Its Implications for Human Rights,” reports that up to 70 percent of young people have been victims of online abuse; one-third of those who have been bullied self-harm; and ten percent have attempted suicide. While these facts are concerning in their own right, it should not be lost on anyone that the mental health consequences of social media relate to, and are often directly caused by, the infringement on victims’ civil liberties that social media engenders.
There is no sanctuary where users can hide from social media. In opening ourselves up to the internet, we have no choice but to face what it can rob us of; it is implicit that one must surrender certain civil liberties and rights in joining any social media platform. While social media has enhanced democracy in some ways, it has inherently encroached upon rights that western people have come to take for granted. It raises the question of how to balance our freedoms. After all, ‘freedom for all’ does not in actuality always mean freedom for all individuals. Is the price for global access more than we are willing to pay?
Fukuyama, F. (2021, April). Making the Internet Safe for Democracy. Journal of Democracy.
Hackett, L. (2017, January). Cyberbullying and Its Implications for Human Rights. UN
Olaniran, B., & Williams, I. (2020). Social Media Effects: Hijacking Democracy and Civility in
Civic Engagement. In J. Jones & M. Trice (Eds.), Rhetoric, Politics and Society (pp.
77–94). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-36525-7_5