Remember the time when it was alleged that the fake news that went viral on Facebook played a large role in the stunning upset that led to Donald Trump’s victory? Pundits around the world speculated that this might be the beginning of the end of democracy. Social media drew, and continues to draw, criticisms from all corners for its part in the subversion of democracy. But wait. Remember the time when the same social media was lauded during the Arab Spring when protesters used Facebook and Twitter to mobilise in large numbers? The pundits had hailed these very platforms as catalysts for ushering democracy in places that had been long ruled by autocrats. So, do social media platforms strengthen democracy or undermine it?
If the Harvard professor Cass Sunstein is to be believed, then the extreme personalisation that today’s social media provides threatens democracy. In his new book titled #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Sunstein argues that the perfect filtering that platforms like Facebook and Twitter provide is a serious challenge to democratic deliberation and free expression.
By suggesting what news to read and which people to follow, the algorithms behind these platforms enable the creation of echo chambers. In these balkanized fora, a person is exposed to only one view of the world – the one she already subscribes to. The preconditions for a well-functioning democracy and a system of free expression are encapsulated in the “public forum doctrine,” writes Sunstein. In public forums (primarily streets and parks) chance encounters and surprises are features, and not bugs, of the system. Echo chambers, the author contends, act as breeding grounds for “fragmentation, polarization, and extremism.” Indeed, psychological experiments confirm that the collective form of the group is more radical than any single individual, and that group polarisation can be explosive. Social media sites have, in fact, been used by terrorist organisations for recruitment, inspiration and radicalisation. These echo chambers are, thus, dangerous for democracy and social peace.
What remains unclear in the book is the author’s final stance towards the social media companies. While in the first few chapters of the book, Sunstein is highly critical of the ultra-customisation provided by social media platforms, he has a change of heart mid-way through the book. In fact, in the concluding sections, he seems to adopt an almost apologetic tone towards Facebook and Twitter, speaking of them as “challenging but not endangering democracy.” It is not surprising, then, that the only proposal he has for social media platforms, is an “architecture of serendipity,” with serendipity knobs that would allow users to choose for unfiltered views and opposing perspectives.
In pointing out that technology can be used for both constructive and destructive purposes, Sunstein isn’t saying much. This might be one of the reasons the book appears to belabour a small set of ideas and seems repetitive. The reader is left wanting for a nuanced discussion of the social psyche. These technology platforms, after all, do not exist in a vacuum. To a large extent, they make easily accessible what people already want – i.e. to form alliances with like-minded people.
If you are drawn to this book because of Sunstein — of Nudge fame — then #Republic will fall short on expectations. If, however, you want to read a detailed account of how echo chambers and cybercascades influence present-day political discussions in America, then this is an interesting and easy read.