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Is social media good for democracy?

  • Published at 06:06 pm October 1st, 2019
Social Media
Photo: Bigstock

There are downsides, but ultimately social media strengthens the freedom of speech

In the political landscape of today, social media plays an integral role in activism and exercising freedom of expression.

Facebook and Twitter have become popular online platforms for activists and politicians to lay their claims, and for others to agree or to make a rebuttal.

These platforms, along with Instagram, have been a convenient choice for politicians as well.

Many famous world leaders are now utilizing this medium to the fullest extent to preach their ideologies and thoughts. Key among them are Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Ramzan Kadyrov, and many others.

Now, to understand the role of social media in politics, specifically of the democratic nature, we must assess its impact on elections. Studies conducted by Democracy Reporting International shows that 3 billion people across the globe use social media.

As research regarding this matter is yet in the preliminary stage, it is impossible to portray its exact influence in aiding the forming of opinions. Social media, although, is thought to have the most impact in countries with comparatively weaker media and other traditional networks. The distinction between them being, social media comprises of services like Facebook, while a social network is something aimed at reaching specific groups, such as WhatsApp. It must be added, manipulation can be caused in both mediums.

Formally organized social media manipulation campaigns are the issues that raise most concern, according to studies conducted during and after the 2016 presidential elections. The countries where these trends are showing are growing drastically, and currently, a large number of countries have already been a target of these disinformation campaigns.

The key patrons of this are mostly political parties who benefit from the mass sharing of disinformation. Many of these political parties share a tendency of harbouring radical, far-right leaning ideologies, often promoting isolationism and ethnic segregation via ultra-nationalistic rhetoric.

In the last three months of the US presidential campaign 2016, 20 of the best performing news stories from hoax sites publishing false and hyper-partisan information regarding the election generated 8,711,000 shares, likes, reactions, and comments.

In the same period of time, the 20 best performing news stories published by 19 major news agencies generated 7,367,000 shares, likes, reactions, and comments.

Misinformation campaigns can be waged in various ways. For example, the usage of targeted ads using data acquired illegally. Another example of this is paid trolls. Paid trolls are those who create exaggerated rhetoric emphasizing on the agenda of those who finance them.

Falsification is another one of these techniques. This is the method of spreading false information that has no subjective proof, but high commercial value. 

Lastly, the most traditional and popular tool over the course of history is hate speech and defamation. Hate speech is an attempt at systematically suppressing political opinion and dissent. It can be articulated in various manners, such as spreading false information of violence at the polling booths, isolating a specific group of people and promoting violence against them, and promoting intimidation tactics to brew fear within the opposition.

Nonetheless, not all of social media’s impacts on democratic electoral proceedings are negative. Its greatest impact, arguably, is the creation of a platform for dialogue for everyday citizens of the country.

Public discourse, debate, and discussion are the foundations of democracy, and never before have the people had as much room for involvement, activism, and accessing information as they are able to now.

Therefore, solely based on its ability to strengthen freedom of speech, it would make sense to make the claim that social media does indeed benefit democracy.  

Wasif Jamal Khan is a freelance contributor.

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