Though the internet has its merits, there is grave danger in assuming social media is inherently a force for democracy. Its broader context is too often overlooked in favour of its everyday value; we mistake social media as an objective tool that is bent to our will. In truth, however, our collective use of social media serves to generate wealth for a select few. Why have we come to overlook this sinister undertone? Though the successes of recent grassroots movements mark tremendously important shifts towards a digitally-integrated politic, this is overemphasized when it comes time to question the societal responsibilities that social media now bear. Ultimately, social media platforms are for-profit. I argue that this corporate dimension is too critical for us to ignore, and that these contextual considerations must be taken more seriously if we are to preserve the true essence of democracy in the future.
I. Social media as internet navigator
Though the internet has been around for several decades, recent years have proven remarkable not because of increased usage so much as personalized enhancements. In 2017, 67% of American adults found news through social media; our digital profiles have arguably become the primary filter through which we interact with the world. Media experts such as Clay Shirkly note that their networked dissemination structure is revolutionarily different from prior technologies such as television. In his optimistic TEDtalk, “How the Internet will (one day) transform government” (2012), Shirkly presents worldwide examples of people harnessing social media as a tool for advocacy; promising that everyone from school principles to Chinese statesmen can succumb to justice. In theory, whether #BlackLivesMatter or #AntiVax activist, any cause can succeed thanks to the miracle that is social media. Sadly, behind this veneer of grassroots movements, social media companies value other motivations.
II. Corporatization of interpersonal dialogue
Social media platforms exist to make money. However, this is not one of the talking points of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who prefers to describe their mission as “[giving] people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”; goals that capitalize on democratic ideals. Interestingly, that mission was altered in the wake of privacy concerns, sharing false news, and pro-terrorist content. Facebook’s prior commitment was to “[…] make the world more open and connected.” Notably, the updated language of closeness is not beholden to the same implied principles as openness and connectivity.
While Facebook itself is free to use, the business operates on the basis of advertising dollars. Consequently, every design decision is ultimately weighed against the interests of this revenue stream. Social media companies thusly seek to prolong their users’ screen time, even if that damages their emotional and mental health, as was infamously admitted by a former executive for the company. So while some users may naively believe in Facebook’s statement, the reality is that our time spent online is engineered for profitability. Through this relatively new medium of social media, we are seeing unprecedented commodification of our time, conversations, and personal interests.
III. Data mining beyond the platform
Outside businesses have also found clever ways to quietly gather massive amounts of data. The susceptible public structure of social media poses a threat to democracy in that these platforms present an irresistible opportunity to squeeze sellable data out of everyday people and use it against them. Many users have been warned that sharing personal information could empower stalkers, but they are not on high alert as to the sinister presence of third-party businesses on the social media they have come to trust. As we learned with Cambridge Analytica, while the threat seems inconsequential on an individual level, there are huge implications if considered on the whole. Their valuable product is detailed insight into the opinions, values, and trends of disparate demographics. This exterior corporate dimension is troubling not only because there is no public access to this wealth of knowledge, but also because these companies are not front-facing, unlike platforms such as Facebook or Twitter themselves.
Since knowledge really is power, this dynamic presents a problematic asymmetry that is antithetical to the purpose of democracy––to uphold the rule of the people over the wills of any oligarch. With all this data in hand, outside interests looking to quietly purchase influence are able to do so, and though market research and similar tactics have existed for some time, the scope is undeniably larger than prior to social media. I believe it is too easy to blame the oversharing user when the long-term solution would be the institutional adoption of meaningful accountability and transparency across the board, enforced by the platforms themselves in accordance with a global law. After all, esteemed historians of everyday suffrage, such as Dr. Howard Zinn, have consistently warned that the powerful elites have always viewed democracy and its loopholes as something to be navigated and managed.
IV. Biased algorithms with uncertain futures
While no one can predict the future, it seems that social media platforms are here to stay. The nature of these platforms and their value to society will certainly morph with the times, and that leaves potential for both good and bad outcomes. Despite the networked potential of online spaces, we should remember that the content of our feeds are derived from algorithms; programmed to determine the comparative value of information. It’s easy to forget that behind every seemingly objective algorithm, there is a human programer whose salary and success is measured in part by the satisfaction of advertisers. Algorithms are useful tools, but they are still subject to human flaws. This is the point driven home through the interdisciplinary and sociological research of Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble, who studies the racial and sexist bias of popular search engines. In her book, Algorithms of Oppression, Umoja Noble finds that discoverability is particularly marred by both the prioritized visibility of advertised content and the monopoly of search engine websites; findings that can surely extend to social media sites. How can we, in good conscience, espouse the progressiveness of online spaces when platforms themselves are reliant on the profitability of such algorithms? Secondly, beyond any inherent bias within algorithms, we need remember that various state and private interests can and will seek to manipulate social media algorithms, from the “feed” to “suggestions” for further browsing. Is there any example more salient than Russia’s proven interference in the United States’ 2016 presidential election? That case made real the potential for opposing state actors to surreptitiously influence the opinions of individuals on an intimate scale. Going forward, if we wish to pursue the potential for more democratic social media spaces, then both of these exploitable flaws in algorithm must be meaningfully addressed.
As more and more businesses look towards the internet for opportunity, age-old patterns of political manipulation arise. It is this force which ultimately carves out the typology of the online world; not any kind of global resolution or consensus from the masses. The danger lies in these ulterior motives being obscured from view and their intrusions eventually being adopted as the new normal. While social media platforms boast potential as a fresh frontiers ripe with grassroots dialogue, there are currently too many special interests allowed to plot behind the scenes with the intent to subvert real digital democracy.
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Shirky, Clay. TED, TEDGlobal 2012, June 2012, www.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_how_the_internet_will_one_day_transform_government.
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Zinn, Howard. Big Think, YouTube, 5 July 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=gClaYx-Jd6g.