A neutral social media really could be a democratizing force, in theory. But the major platforms are far from neutral. They are deliberately designed to manipulate you, and to manipulate your experience on the platform in ways that will change how you think and how you behave. These platforms do this not just by what they show you, but also by eliciting certain emotions and behaviors from you.
All this digital manipulation, at the scale of maybe hundreds of hours per year, changes you. And not just online, but in your offline life, too. It changes your emotional makeup, the way that you approach politics, your sense of your own identity — even the way that you process right and wrong.
For an individual user — and we now have hard, empirical, scientific evidence for this — the effect can be to make you angrier, more extreme and intolerant, more distrustful, more prone to divide the world between us and them, and more disposed toward hostility and even violence against people outside your social in-group.
This might change you just by a matter of degree. But when you multiply this effect out by billions of users, and often among a majority of the population, the effect can change society as a whole, too, and especially its politics, in ways that can be detrimental to democracy.
What do you think most people miss about the link between social media and threats to democracy?
One thing that social platforms have done — and it’s hard to blame this entirely on Silicon Valley — is to displace the traditional activism that is an important part of bringing about democracy or of preventing an existing democracy from backsliding.
That activism used to happen through organizing among real-world networks, like student groups during the civil rights movement in the United States, or mothers’ groups in 1970s Argentina resisting that country’s dictatorship. Now, social media allows a protest group, even a leaderless one, to skip that process and, by going viral online, to activate thousands or even millions of people overnight.
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