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The Impact of Social Media on Democracy

The attention on how social medias and search engines shape our perspective on different critical topics has come back to the spotlight after the “shocking” US election result. I use the word “shocking” in this context because if you were like me, regularly following the news and information provided by the mainstream medias and seemingly credible election result forecasting websites (e.g. FiveThirtyEight); you may be convinced that the chance of Donald Trump winning the election is as small as for Chicago Cubs to finally win the MLB World Series. That’s why after the election, there are discussions that instead of the mainstream media, social medias like Facebook and search engines like Google play an important role in influencing the voters’ decision and influence the election outcome.

According to the studies conducted by Pew Research Centre in 2016, around 62% of the people in America use social medias as the platform to get news. This phenomenon indicates that audiences are nowadays able to obtain news from a much broader range of sources instead of only the information that are edited by the mass media. And similarly, as long as you are connected to the internet, you can setup your own media business with almost no entry barrier. The reason is that most of the income for the news industry comes from advertising revenue, and now as more people preferred to get news online, anyone who is capable of putting up attractive content can also make money out of it. At the same time, they can spread the message with very few restrictions. The advantages are that the distribution of news is no longer the privilege of the news media, but on the other hand, this also implies the trending of ‘false’ news and hoaxes become more likely to occur. Misinformation and lacking good flow of information can be problematic and give rise to damaging outcomes on the society. More specifically, given the example of an election, if the electorate is unable to get a good flow of information, it is not possible to have a functioning democracy. It is that serious.

To properly analyse the impact of narrowing view and misinformation, let’s start from social medias — as aforementioned, the majority of the audience now consume news by scrolling through their news feed. Social medias were created initially to connect people, but as they become almost inseparable from people’s daily life, they have a greater responsibility on the service they provide and the resulting impact on the society.

Companies like Facebook earn their profit mostly through revenue from advertisements – the more user engagement, the more potential profit they can generate. Furthermore, as most print medias are transforming themselves towards digital media companies, their revenue relies on digital ads more than ever, and they have to compete within an environment dominated by large companies like Facebook and Google. It is inevitable for them to promote and gain visibility via the help of social medias and leading search engines. Therefore, if Facebook and Google aim at maximising their profit with little attention on designing algorithms which take ethics into consideration, the negative impacts are immense. For instance, your Facebook news feeds are not presented to you in chronological order. Instead, it is ranked from the feeds that contain the information that you may find more interesting or relevant to you. So, similarly, you are much more likely to reach the news that matches your view and political stance, and the rest of them will just not make it into your news feeds without notifying you. Depending on who you are friends with, your past likes, shares and comments behaviour, Facebook tailored-made the information that is presented to you. This phenomenon is called the “filter bubble”, when the algorithm selectively cut out some information you may enjoy less, and create your own online universe consisting of news from a particular point of view and opinions from like-minded people. We then gradually develop tunnel vision and live in our online comfort zones since it rarely exposes us to opposing news and views. Apart from that, you have to be aware of the fact that there is no “standard” Google, which means that the search result of the exact same term on Google is different for every user. According to your current location, previous searches and clicked links, the algorithm will generate personalised search results for you. The most dangerous part is that not only people’s view are unconsciously narrowed but also the mechanisms of screening out fake news and hoaxes are not coded in the algorithm, thus allowing misinformation to spread around the internet. Furthermore, fake news usually use clickbait to attract views, and many people cannot resist the temptation to click on a news with a title that aroused their curiosity. The more views it has, the more advertisement revenue is generated, and the more likely it will appear on your news feeds or the first few pages of search results.

We are now more isolated from the news and information that we need to know but were edited out by the algorithm. You can argue that before people started to consume news online, people already had the tendency to choose specific a media or newspaper because it is close to their political ideology. But in the past a human was involved in the process of deciding which news and information to expose to their audience, so although the news was probably biased but not entirely fake. The challenge for now is for social media to acknowledge that since they are the platform where people consume news, misinformation has to be dealt with seriously. At the same time, be cautious on defining whether it is a fake news or just an opinion which is not commonly accepted. In addition, we need to alleviate the filter bubble problem, thus, more transparency is required. For instance, Facebook should inform their users that everyone’s news feeds have been programmed by an algorithm, and this depends mainly on which factors.

Instead of relying on Facebook and Google to adjust their algorithm or vet news, we can take some actions as well. Firstly, use social medias wisely, be conscious of how they decided on what you can see and what kind of information have possibly been edited out. Secondly, we should always be skeptical about the news, no matter on which platform they are presented and whether they are from mainstream or alternative medias. Besides the capability of recognising whether a news is fake or not, there are also many forms of media bias that you should look out for. Thirdly, try to balance out your news sources, be aware of the fact that not everyone thinks the same way as you, and for most of the time, these sources exist for a reason. Mix media with liberal and conservative biases together to make up your daily news consumption. (As far as I am concerned, empirically, there is no neutral media) Most importantly, be open-minded about different points of view, be open to discussion and be willing to communicate your beliefs with others.

One day, people will probably look back in disbelief that we let the internet tear us apart to such an extreme and even threaten democracy. It is important that we act now. The choice is between democracy and the bottom line of social media, and we know very well which one is better.


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