Is Social Media Promoting Or Undermining Democracy—Or Both?

Just two days ago, on October 25th, Mr. T once again treated the facts of a situation as clay he could shape any way he pleased. He accused Hillary Clinton of giving Russia “20% of American uranium and, you know, she was paid a fortune.” This, he claimed, is the real Russia scandal. Of course, this is another in a long line of lies and distortions. According to Politifact and the Washington Post, a one time owner of a uranium company that was sold to the Russians did give money to the Clinton Foundation, but this was before she was Secretary of State and before the uranium company was owned by Russians—plus, she had no hand in approving the sale to Russians.

 

Is this simply another example of a President who either has no care for the truth or who believes in the big lie, a lie so outrageous that people who hear it will think there must be some truth to it? Is he being so outrageous because he understands that social media, the internet, and news outlets that are more like organs of propaganda supports such behavior? Does social media promote or undermine democracy in this or any country? These questions are asked directly or indirectly almost every day lately, with Trump on Twitter and Russians on FB.

 

It wasn’t long ago that many people were proclaiming that social media would be a democratizing force in the world. In late 2010, early 2011, during the Arab Spring, we heard how social media led to powerful demonstrations that brought down established oppressive regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. According to an article in the Harvard Human Rights Journal, it enabled a “twitter revolution” to build extensive networks of protest as well as to gain information beyond the borders the government controls.

 

But as the authors of the article state, using the example of the failure of student-led protests to further democracy in Hong Kong in 2014, a very tech-savvy city, “the power of social media is mischaracterized, its potency exaggerated.”

 

It is so easy to get lost in the advantages of social media and ignore the dangers. One danger is an increase in oppression. The “Great Firewall of China” is “a giant mechanism of censorship and surveillance” that prevents information that opposes the Chinese Communist Party from reaching its citizens.

 

In a discussion at the Aspen Institute on the role of social media in diplomacy, Alec Ross, former State Department senior innovation adviser, described how Vladimir Putin built a digital information system in his country that has become a “truly effective propaganda machine.” He said the success of Putin’s efforts are illustrated by the fact that just a few years ago people throughout Europe believed that the United States shot down the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in July, 2014, not the Russians.

 

In the US, the last election has led to an epidemic of “fake news,” much of it seemingly supplied by Russia to support Mr. T and increase divisiveness and anger in our country. It has intensified racial and religious divides, for example, as well as political, such as between Bernie vs. Clinton supporters. It has become increasingly difficult to know what’s true. According to an article by Hunt Alcott and Mathew Gentzkow, in the Stanford University Journal of Economic Perspectives, during the election 62% of US adults got their news from social media and “the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on FB than popular mainstream news stories”—and they were believed. Fake news was both widely shared and heavily tilted in favor of Mr. T. “Our database contains 115 pro-Trump fake stories that were shared on Facebook a total of 30 million times, and 41 pro-Clinton fake stories shared a total of 7.6 million times.” The authors conclude that fake news most likely helped elect Mr. T president.

 

Madeline Albright also took part in the Aspen Institute discussion. As reported by Catherine Lutz in her article on the subject, Albright said, “We’re operating in a rudderless world.” Social media technology is helping create a “dangerous force” of nationalism. People are “grouping more and more with their own kind, whether it’s national, ethnic, or religious groups.” [Italics are my own.] This was in August, 2014, and Albright’s words are proving even more true today.

 

Ross said, at the Aspen Institute discussion, that the media is value-neutral, but I question that. I can’t forget Marshall McLuhan, in the 1960s talking about “the media is the message.” We have to look more at the effects of the media itself, not just its content.

 

One effect of social media and related technologies is an increase in the hold on us of a consumer-driven capitalist society. They enshrine ever more deeply the values of immediate gratification, distraction, us-them thinking and an over-simplification of how we view issues in our society. Ease of pleasure replaces depth of experience. Many of us recognize that usage of media has become a habit we feel we cannot do without. We worry if we are away for any length of time from our phones or social media platforms, “what have I missed?” We want the latest cell phones or other devices, despite the fact that this technology can be costly. Some studies claim American teens spend on average 9 hours a day on their cell phones and other media, more time than most of them sleep. According to the World Bank, Americans in general spend 1.7 hours a day on social media.

 

Parents and educators especially are seeing an increase in anxiety and difficulty concentrating in their children. This can partly be attributed to the “Trump Effect” and the fear engendered by this administration, but social media shares some of the blame. (I’d argue an increasing divide between the very rich and the rest of us is also to blame, but that’s for another time.) Psychologist and educator Larry Rosen, in his book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology And Overcoming Its Hold On Us, argues that social media has contributed to an increase in disorders like narcissism and anxiety in both children and adults. He goes further and argues that when hidden behind our media screens, our thinking is more easily distorted, and we display thoughts and actions that characterize different psychological disorders. For example, Rosen cites studies showing many people, on FB or other social media, display the “me first” grandiosity, lack of empathy, envy of others, sense of self-importance and entitlement that characterizes a narcissistic personality disorder.

 

According to Mark Matousek in his book Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good, words are never more than a small part of any face-to-face communication—one study showed as little as 7% of the emotional meaning of a message. The rest is expressed through facial expression, posture, gestures, and tone of voice. But on social media, we only have words, names, or photos to respond to. We can lose the feeling that the people we meet on FB have an inner life similar to our own. We have to fill in so much with our imagination and prior understandings that it is easy to misunderstand or not care. Matousek argues we suffer a virtual blindness that can undermine our sense of shared humanity and morality.

 

Truth has a difficult time competing against the pressures to fit in a group and believe what your friends believe. We understand only in a context, and one of the most important elements of any context is who we are with. This leads to a cognitive bias to believe what other people, especially those in our group, believe (bandwagon effect and herd instinct), and we are more likely to notice information that supports our pre-existing views than what doesn’t (confirmation bias).

 

Never before, thanks to the internet, have facts been easier to find. Yet, lies and distortions by politicians have increasingly filled the headlines. We have to take time to check sources of any information we read in order not to be deceived by a fake news story. Democracy is a complex, time consuming political system demanding more education on issues and involvement from its citizens. Yet, the internet itself fosters the expectation of immediate answers, undermines tolerance of complexity, and thus makes it easier for corrupt politicians to deceive and manipulate.

 

So, does social media promote or undermine democracy? Maybe both. I am disturbed by how easy it is to spread propaganda and fake news on social media. But besides the obvious (check sources, not rely on social media for news, take frequent tech/social media holidays and walk in the woods, replace the current administration with one that truly cares about the well-being of its citizens and one that cares about fighting, not supporting, Russian interference in our democracy), I have few answers. I do know that in order to think clearly we need to know how to create a mental silence when we need it, so we can mindfully hear our own thoughts and feelings. And we need to learn how to listen for the reality of others, both for all that we share and all that makes us different, even when we know little about them except a name in the headlines or a few words on FB. Mindfulness and compassion can be revolutionary.

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