Social media has turned into this debilitating poison corrupting people’s behavior, and is now set to consume democracy unlike anything we’ve seen before. Sounds exaggerated? It’s not. The medium has become so powerful that it makes people do the craziest things without prompting second thoughts or nary a hint of regret.
Barack Obama is said to have been the first president to use social media to his political advantage. Whether or not that’s true, what is clear is that more (and maybe most) politicians have done it by now. Unfortunately, just as its effectiveness is gaining widespread recognition, its inevitable dark side is now also impossible to ignore.
Recall that it was not that long ago when Facebook was neck-deep in the Cambridge Analytica fiasco that became the hot button issue after the 2016 elections (both here and in the US). Allegations regarding the misuse of millions of its users’ data had surfaced to cast doubt on the “authenticity” of the results of the polls. Apparently, a simple quiz distributed via its platform had gathered personal data. Data that ended up in the hands of campaign teams who used them to curry favor with voters. In the US, Donald Trump was supposedly the most prominent beneficiary. Here in the Philippines, there were also news reports linking the communications team of the current President to Cambridge Analytica personnel.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg and is an outlier for an example. Social media platforms have long changed political discourse through gradual and simple tweaks. Most changes have been so subtle that very few actually notice.
Take a few steps back, though, and one gains a more meaningful perspective of its key effects:
- It spreads information faster. In a survey conducted early this year (involving four countries, including the Philippines), more than 70% of the respondents said they use social media as a source of news. This is quite dangerous considering the way misinformation and disinformation thrive in online forums, and the fact that the number of social media users continue to increase. The result is akin to what the World Health Organization calls an “infodemic” during disease outbreaks—a state where people can no longer distinguish real information from fake ones. Fomenting the spread are the activities of so-called influencers. People who have considerable following and are good at amplifying messages. They are such effective broadcasters, even of political propaganda.
- It breeds polarization in politics. While people try and often succeed in avoiding politics during regular conversations, it’s extremely difficult not to engage in it on social media. An thanks to the platforms’ business model and their algorithms, this frequently leads to a very polarized landscape. There is no middle ground. Your chosen position is nurtured and reinforced by the creation of online echo chambers. Social media companies will keep feeding you content they think you’re interested in, which only serves to reinforce your beliefs—even if they are inaccurate or untrue. For some people, this environment encourages political discourse. For others, it actually silences them for fear of severe backlash. As a result, the way people interact with family and friends, offline and online, has now completely changed. That, in turn, has led to plenty of secret group chats, unfriending or unfollowing measures, and irreparable relationships.
- It promotes cyberbullying and other forms of online harassment. The ideal is for social media to act as a filter or safe haven where people can express themselves freely. The reality is quite the opposite. Nowadays, many people reduce others into mere avatars and treat them online in ways they would never do in person. Some act like hungry wolves always ready to pounce on anyone posting anything. If that user happens to be you, you should be ready to do any or all of the following: defend yourself, admit your mistake, or simply absorb all the insults. Even children are rarely spared from this sad fate. So far, neither the platforms nor governments have been effective in curtailing this toxic behavior.
There was a time when healthy political debates were possible. The kind that does not resort to ad hominem attacks and where mutual respect among peers still exists. Social media and its residual effects have been a game changer. Meaningful human connections are slowly becoming a thing of the past.
As with all technologies, though, it is still possible to say social media is not inherently bad. Users still get to have their say when charting the path of their relationships and discussions in these platforms. And there are a few things we can do to make sure this is always the case:
- Remember that you are dealing with human beings. It’s far easier to assume that the people who don’t share our beliefs are mere trolls out to make everything miserable for us. Still, it would be better if we remain respectful and take the high road. If they are trolls, the best approach is to not engage them at all.
- It’s okay to not know right away what you believe in. No one keeps tabs on all social issues and current events. So, it’s reasonable for us to be ignorant or unaware of certain things when we go online. Instead of believing the first piece of information that comes along, though, we should take the time to learn about it some more. We can ensure that our time on social media is a worthwhile learning experience.
- Verify using reliable sources. Social media is not the only source of information out there. We should always check the authenticity and accuracy of the information we come across before sharing them with the world, including our corresponding opinions. One can’t have a learning experience founded on fabrications and conspiracy theories.
- Grab every opportunity to inform and educate. It may be hard to talk with people who are too stubborn to listen to reason, but we still need to try. If our facts are confirmed, and our evidence is solid, we should at least make our case. Cutting off ties shouldn’t always be our first resort. Otherwise, we, as a society, will never arrive at a common understanding of anything.
- Limit the personal data you share online. The world is not entitled to know everything about you, and, for the most part, neither does it want to. Excessive sharing also gives others ample ammunition to attack you with, even if unprovoked and undeserved.
- Everyone may be entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. In spite of everything that’s already been said, one still has to draw the line somewhere. There can be multiple sides to a story, but all of them have to be based on the same reality. A dialogue would be impossible without that as a prerequisite.
Next year is an election year. The future of our democracy rests upon our ability to make the right choices online and, more importantly, offline—in the ballot boxes. Unlike 2016, let’s see to it that social media is an agent for good this time around. If we fail to do that, despite everything we know now, democracy’s demise won’t be just social media’s doing. We’d have blood on our hands, too.