About ten years ago, when I started teaching a course at Harvard on Democracy in the Digital Age, the general mood was pure optimism. Academics and journalists have predicted that the internet and social media will connect the world, empower the weak, and democratize the planet.
I saw my role at the time as being largely to show students that every coin has two sides. I was concerned that the internet would also make ordinary people fiercely reaffirm their identities, handing out valuable tools on a tray to autocrats.
How the world has changed since. Today, the dominant consensus is more or less exactly the reverse of what it was ten years ago. Most academics and journalists today agree that the internet and social media incite hatred, strengthen extremists and endanger democracy. Along with the increasingly familiar litany of the dangers of social media comes a particular set of ideas on how to mitigate that risk. The only way to save democracy, according to many today, is to ban disinformation and limit free speech.
I fear the new consensus will prove to be as misleading and short-sighted as the one it replaced. Worse yet: there is a real danger today that actions taken in the name of safeguarding social media democracy will end up compounding the damage done to it.
The dangers posed by social media are real.
Social networks fuel political polarization. Most real-world groups are politically heterogeneous, and exposure to people with a range of different opinions tends to exert a moderating influence. Already on Twitter and Facebook, many people surround themselves with others who think like them and then begin to radicalize even more. The more time citizens spend on social media, the more likely they are to view political opponents as enemies they must overcome.
Social networks facilitate the rise of political extremists. A few decades ago, a small group of “gatekeepers” controlled anyone who had the ability to reach a large audience. The costs of creating a political organization were very high. Today, anyone with a few hundred followers on Twitter or Facebook can reach an audience of millions with a post that goes viral. It is much easier for like-minded people to come together to defend a new political cause.
And to conclude, social media discredits many establishment institutions by exposing their long-standing shortcomings and failures. In the past, only a few people noticed that a newspaper made a big mistake or that an organization made an embarrassing mistake. Today, such errors are much more likely to be discovered and discussed. Naturally, trust in the media and in politics, in universities and in big business, is weakening more and more.
All of this requires an answer. But the answer that many thought leaders are quickly rallying to – namely, ceding to a mix of political institutions and social media companies the power to exclude anyone they consider to be an extremist or accused of being an extremist. spreading “disinformation” – is likely to exacerbate the problem, not to alleviate it.
The most immediate danger is that important discussions will be artificially restricted and potentially true assumptions being excluded from the public sphere. Over the past 15 months, for example, leading scientists who have championed a particular theory about the origin of Covid-19 have been labeled conspiracy theorists and banned from YouTube and Facebook.
Now, all of a sudden, senior politicians and the mainstream media are taking their arguments seriously. Whether your ideas turn out to be correct or not, we should all be outraged by the treatment of them and worry that this portends debates on other politically sensitive matters.
The rise of “de facto” censorship is also likely to further erode confidence in the impartiality of the most important institutions of society. Supporters of virtually every political cause and orientation seem to think that existing social media platforms are biased against them. Given the existing mechanisms for deciding who is “authenticated” on Facebook or Twitter or excluded from these platforms, this is hardly surprising.
With many people fully aware of the unfair decisions that affect their ideological allies, but not those that affect their ideological opponents, everyone ends up thinking that the existing power structures are particularly damaging to them. And the results of all of this are worrying for all of us.
None of this means democracies are powerless on social media. Countries need to tax tech giants fairly and enforce competition laws more rigorously. New social media platforms need to be able to compete with existing ones, and there needs to be portability for Twitter or Facebook users to transfer their data to the competition.
But the real solution lies neither in the regulatory changes needed to be approved by parliaments, nor in the erroneous submission to a new censorship regime that starts from Silicon Valley. It has to come from all of us.
It is time for journalists and intellectuals to present a fervent defense of the values of liberal democracy, for institutional leaders to ignore the conflict entrepreneurs who dominate social media, and for us to reject and denounce all who seek to feed on our divisions.
Translation by Clara Allain
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