Although the 2016 US election had already ended 3 years ago, the role of social media in politics was greatly recognized ever since. According to a survey done by the Pew Research Centre (2016), 44% of the U.S. adults got information about the 2016 presidential election from social media. Undoubtedly, social media had a huge influence in shaping one’s political stance in the US election. However, can we genuinely depend on social media for something as serious as politics and the presidential election? Can social media really act as a tool for citizens to strive for democracy?
If you think about the vast amount of fake news on social media, the news stories we’ve been reading could hardly be informative for politics. In order to generate more profit, commercial media often makes misleading news that has shock value to appeal to citizens. It is found that the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on Facebook than the most popular mainstream news stories and that the most discussed fake news stories tended to favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton (Blake, 2018). The lack of content control on social media essentially led to misunderstandings of the candidates’ actual abilities and incorrectly influenced the public’s political views.
Thanks to the Facebook Algorithm, people are unconsciously being fed with biased information on their Facebook feeds. For those who haven’t heard of this problematic invention, Facebook Algorithm is basically a system that analyzes what content a user is interested in and it would automatically suggest even more related content for the user to see (Olson, 2016). Madrigal (2016) explains the new Facebook algorithm would determine what posts your News Feed appear first by the probability that you interact with those type of posts. Apart from showing what we tend to like, comment or share about, Facebook Algorithm also filters out information that contradicts what posts we interact with. If we’re not receiving equal information on the opposing side and continue to interact with more people from our own political stance, the political views we built upon are only biased information that Facebook is showing us. This greatly affects our rationality as citizens who should originally have equal freedom of receiving all news and information online. Is there really democracy if our political views are in fact being manipulated by pre-selected and filtered posts on Facebook? Algorithms now amplify views that we already conform to and click-bait stories that everyone else clicked into. It is ironic how Facebook as a social media platform is not promoting the public sphere but limiting the diversity of voices heard.
Facebook Algorithm leads to a bigger issue here – the social media we’re all receiving and sharing political information on is in fact perpetuating a culture where people only communicate with those who share the same beliefs. In the study “Echo Chambers on Facebook” (2016), researchers have found social media users are drawn to information that reinforces their preferred narratives and ignore information that oppose their views. This leads to the problem of “confirmation bias”, where our minds naturally tend to seek out for information that confirms what we already believe (Hull, 2018). It is however hard to get rid of these biases as Hull points out that this quality is intrinsically rooted in our nature. With the emergence of Facebook algorithm, this problem is worsened and the situation of political polarization is intensified. Olson (2016) argues that Facebook algorithm is essentially “spoon-feeding us information that reinforces our existing opinions, damages our ability as humans to think rationally, and to consider an opposing point of view”. Olsen suggests that this culture of living inside filter bubbles can further lead to social problems like group-think and mob mentality that would seriously hinder and restrict people’s freedom to think rationally and sensibly. Facebook algorithm traps us into filter bubbles and prevent us from understanding the world in a holistic view. Social media is therefore certainly not creating democratic dialogues but biased political discussions.
We as digital natives should realize the subtly destructive power social media has on democracy. We have to be aware that the vast amount of information online might rather limit us from seeing one-sided content and affect our rationality. It is therefore vital for us to take the initiative to fact-check information and read from multiple news platforms or opinions from contradicting sides in different social or political issues to pop the filter bubbles we’re being trapped in by social media.
Blake, A. (2018, April 3). Analysis | A new study suggests fake news might have won Donald Trump the 2016 election. Retrieved October 1, 2019, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/04/03/a-new-study-suggests-fake-news-might-have-won-donald-trump-the-2016-election/.
Hull, G. (2017, November 5). Why social media may not be so good for democracy. Retrieved October 1, 2019, from https://theconversation.com/why-social-media-may-not-be-so-good-for-democracy-86285
Madrigal, A. C. (2017, October 12). What Facebook Did to American Democracy. Retrieved October 1, 2019, from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/10/what-facebook-did/542502/
Olson, P. (2016, November 11). How Facebook Helped Donald Trump Become President. Retrieved October 1, 2019, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/parmyolson/2016/11/09/how-facebook-helped-donald-trump-become-president/
Greenwood, S., Perrin, A., & Duggan, M. (2016). Social Media Update 2016. Social Media Update 2016. Pew Research Centre. Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/2016/11/11/social-media-update-2016/
Quattrociocchi, W., Scala, A., & Sunstein, C. R. (2016). Echo Chambers on Facebook. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2795110