Are social media good for democracy?

Where people have access to more and diverse sources of information, the better the chances for democracy to flourish.  By empowering individuals to share information and opinion with a mass audience, using technologies of rapid and mass dissemination previously available only to communicators in traditional media, social media cannot but be good for democracy. But, in its latest lead article on social media and democracy, the magazine The Economist questions this conventional assumption, and offers the other side of the argument (“Social media’s threat to democracy,” 11/4/17).

This timely article takes off from the ongoing committee hearings in the US Senate on the widespread involvement of Russian websites in the dissemination of massive amounts of information that had the effect of polarizing American politics on the eve of the 2016 presidential election. “Russia’s trouble-making is only the start. From South Africa to Spain, politics is getting uglier. Part of the reason is that, by spreading untruth and outrage, corroding voters’ judgment and aggravating partisanship, social media erode the conditions for the horse-trading that [Bernard] Crick thought fosters liberty.”

It is difficult to resist the temptation of seeing politics in our own country in the same terms. One cannot but feel paranoid over the Economist’s depiction of what happens to a nation’s politics when it falls under the spell of social media manipulators.

“Because people are sucked into a maelstrom of pettiness, scandal and outrage, they lose sight of what matters for the society they share. This tends to discredit the compromises and subtleties of liberal democracy, and to boost the politicians who feed off conspiracy and nativism.”

But, the role of social media in electoral politics is so new that one can easily fall into an exaggerated view of its importance in shaping voter behavior. While daily bombardment of targeted information by social media can indeed shape public consciousness in a very specific way, it does not automatically determine how people will collectively act. The information has to be processed as communication by every individual, who may embrace it outright because it affirms his/her prejudices, or reject it out of hand simply because it contradicts deeply held feelings. There is simply no way of telling how an individual will act based on perceptions he/she is assumed to have.

I think, however, that if there is one thing that the recent Philippine and American presidential elections gave us a glimpse of, it was the extraordinary power to refine political messages by repeatedly testing their appeal across social media platforms. The Economist article describes this process thus: “Anyone setting out to shape opinion can produce dozens of ads, analyse them and see which is hardest to resist.”

I didn’t think there was any systematic way of doing this until I came across the term “affective computing.” Wikipedia defines it as “the study and development of systems and devices that can recognize, interpret, process, and simulate human affects.” In short, it is the science for detecting different emotions. It is a scary tool, one that is expected to grasp the most unexamined part of our self during our most unguarded moments. Indeed, the appeal to emotion rather than to reason is nothing new in politics. What is new is the growing precision by which messages can target and amplify one’s deepest emotions and biases.

In this regard, I think the focus on fake news only serves to hide the real problem. It is not the truth or falsity of information that is the issue as far as the mass media are concerned. The issue is selectivity.  Meaning, what information to share.

Information is interesting or uninteresting, relevant or irrelevant, important or unimportant. Period. It is not a requirement for the mass media to rule out untruth before reporting information. As shocking as this observation might be, it applies to the news as well. Truth or falsity is not the primary criterion that governs the operation of the mass media.  In the modern world, that code has long been appropriated by science.  As the sociologist Niklas Luhmann puts it: “Unlike in science, information is not reflected in such a way that, before truth is asserted, it must be established truthfully that untruth can be ruled out.”

Indeed, all mass media routinely allow room for errors.  That is why internet-based news sites often carry “corrected” versions of news items previously reported. Early reports might carry misspelled names, inaccurate descriptions of events, or misidentifications. These do not make them fake or untrue. Much breaking news is of this nature — it is incomplete, speculative, and quite often misleading.

And yet, in view of the absence of an editorial authority that regularly ascertains the factuality and fairness of every social media post, it is the new media that are suspected of lending themselves to systematic attempts to manipulate public opinion.

The reason for this is that, unlike traditional media, social media have not yet developed to a point where norms and standards of relevance have stabilized. One only needs to take a look at the similarities in the evening news lineup of television networks or the headlines of the national dailies in the country to get a feel of a stable media system at work. This doesn’t happen because the editors of the rival networks and newspapers confer with one another.

It may take time before social media can evolve their own internal control mechanisms. But, under pain of losing what remains of their function as a source of reliable information, they will get there.