How bad is social media for democracy?

Social media is a place to share personal feelings and information with the world. Whether sharing photos of yourself posing in a mirror, showing off your brand new Lamborghini or a putting up a lengthy illiterate paragraph of how you’re so depressed because your boyfriend or girlfriend dumped you, places like Facebook and Twitter welcome it all.

Of course, this is just one side of the social media spectrum. Many see social media as a way to meet new people -- the ones who have heart enough to see others as more than a plus-one on their friends list. Others don’t rant about their lives in hopes of pity, but transform their feelings into poems or music. Homemade movies and other such works of art spread through social media and many get noticed. All this can be considered democracy. This can be considered freedom.

As much as I believe social media has turned heartless and damaging to human health in recent years, it also appears to be doing much more in the wrong. Facebook claims social media is threatening democracy by becoming a main source for political propaganda. News agencies and other such persons with political agendas push bias onto us through social media sources, whether it’s the Russians being behind the 2016 elections or that Hillary Clinton had a child trafficking business in a small-town pizza joint. The tide shifts into political advantage at a high degree. Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook's Civic Engagement Product Manager, commented on the issue of fake news in the elections.

“In 2016, we at Facebook were far too slow to recognize how bad actors were abusing our platform. We're working diligently to neutralize these risks now," Chakrabarti said.

This revelation came after the elections were over. The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, dubbed the whole situation of fake news on social media platforms a “crazy idea” at the time. Meanwhile, all these fake stories have been spreading around and were being believed.

One can compare the whole fake news situation similar to propaganda in World War II. Instead of a major world-wide war in the east, we dealt with the 2016 Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. And because of the small-scale seriousness of mankind in these elections -- unlike World War II and the fight for democracy -- this propaganda can be considered as having been spiraled out of control. Words spread like wildfire across Facebook, characters soared through the public domain of Twitter. Celebrities roasting Trump, Trump roasting Clinton and celebrities. Fake stories have been leaked by anonymous websites and authors.

This day and age, people can get more in tune with the happenings of the world. Facebook and Twitter have instant news (mostly written by biased users) that show on the user’s main feed. In an academic journal article written by Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, the authors claim that 62 percent of U.S. adults get their news from social media. This means almost all social media users read and become instantly alarmed upon discovering the skewed information suggesting an FBI agent was found dead in his apartment for knowing too much about Clinton’s emails. Thus, the favor fell into Trump’s hands, although both sides of the political coin had their fair share of biased stories, and each side tried to defend them.

But does this evoke democracy like the folks at Facebook claim? The answer is no., but I can see where the scare is coming from, regarding the many people who strongly believed these stories and nothing else. Social media has not been considered to be a news center. It can connect with news media, sure; many news corporations have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, encouraging input from followers of said channels pertaining to the news stories on their stations and websites.

Social media users can get onto articles on Facebook claiming President Trump officially declared war on North Korea. Users decide to rely on that source instead of an official source like say “60 Minutes.” Most authors who share such false information on social media sites are people who enjoy a good “trolling”

As wrong as that may be, these people had the right to post such ludicrous stories, as that is what Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets provide. It actually exercises freedom of speech. The issue, of course, is the fact that these authors lied about candidates, and people believed them. And for that, these such articles should be checked for validity, treated like articles on news websites.


Joseph Frare is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at joseph.frare@uconn.edu