Social media has become irreplaceable in our lives. It has great influence not only on individual citizens, but also on a broader scale on the whole society and its structures. This also affects democracy, but how and with what kind of consequences?
Good news first: technological development, including social media, has made advancing democracy more efficient. It enables more direct and active participation and has created new ways to influence decision-making.
Social media has also created new informal avenues for people to take action on issues they care about and made it possible for like-minded individuals to locate each other and start working together towards a common goal. Creating new communities and international campaigns has never been this easy. Social media can offer an easy way to participate- the only thing you need to make yourself heard is a smartphone, and it is possible to contact political decision makers directly.
Unfortunately, when it comes to democracy, social media also has its disadvantages. It is an excellent platform for spreading fake news and hate speech. Different social media platforms also gather information about their users and their preferences, likes, comments and publications. With this information, algorithms can categorize people into focused groups and feed them personalized content such as ads, news and publications from others. This is exactly what happened during the United States presidential election in 2016.
A problem with algorithms is the fact that they target individuals with information that only strengthens their prejudices and preconceptions. This leads to individuals not getting exposed to new perspectives and critical discussions, which in turn increases the risk of greater polarization between different groups within the society.
Democracy is built on deliberative discussion, but how can this happen in a society divided into opposing groups?
The algorithms and lack of control on social media platforms have put big media companies in the spotlight. Increasing control is not the solution to hate speech or growing polarization on its own, but there is a need for transparency and information on how these companies operate and the algorithms they use.
One common suggestion is increased government control on social media outlets. But as examples from all over the world highlight, there are real risks concerning political censorship and government-regulated social media. Also, the supranational nature of these platforms makes it impossible for one country to try and regulate them by itself.
In addition to increasing the transparency of media companies, one solution could be education and innovations. There is a need for tools that both adults and children can use to navigate the internet in this era. In Finland, media literacy and the ability to asses information critically is regarded as common civil knowledge. Media literacy is already a part of the official curriculum in elementary education, but as a recent study shows, there is still room for improvement with especially the older generations.
New innovations can also advance dialogue and hinder polarization. One example of this are the new apps that send a notification to the user if they have spent too much time in their own social media bubble.
Finding a comprehensive and widely accepted solution can be challenging, because social media has influence all over the world and on different actors that have their own agendas. Whatever the best solution, multilateral cooperation is needed. In my opinion, governments, media companies, NGOs and individual citizens should aim to work together actively, because this is a problem no one can solve on their own.
The writer worked as Demo Finland’s Programme Assistant in the fall of 2018