Opinion Think

How Social Media Changed Politics

In Part 3 of an exploration of radically networked societies, we discuss its effects on the contemporary nation-state.

Read Part 1 on human nature  and Part 2 on the Age of Outrage.

I woke up one morning to find that the President of the United States of America had taken time out of his supposedly busy schedule to tweet that the leader of a rogue state was “short and fat.” Within 24 hours, I discovered that the rogue state had sentenced the POTUS “to death” because he had “hurt the dignity of the Supreme Leadership.”

While I spent a good part of that day laughing at how ridiculous the entire charade was, another part of me was worried (and curious). How has humanity ended up in a situation where a single fragile ego could conceivably end up wiping out a global civilisation almost 20,000 years in the making?

The answer lies partly in our biology and our behaviour in groups, which I explored in Parts One and Two. But the real coup de grace to the modern system has been dealt by deeper structural problems: the decline of the traditional news media, demographics and the decline of empathy, and the priorities of social media companies and political leaders. It is these that I aim to address in this final article of the series.

On Advertising

What is an advertisement? Here’s a non-traditional definition: It’s a sale of your attention by a platform you are using to a third party that wants to influence your thinking.

See an ad on a billboard? The advertiser has paid the government for permission to grab your attention from driving around or walking. See an ad in a magazine, a newspaper, on TV? The advertiser has figured out what demographic is most likely to use that platform, and paid it for the privilege of grabbing the attention of its subscribers.

How is social media advertising any different? First: a social media platform knows much more about its subscribers than traditional media. It knows exactly what they like and dislike, and can give them exactly the ads – and content –  that it thinks they are most likely to interact with. Second: it’s free, so a huge number of people use it, from politicians to policymakers and citizens. (Older platforms, by virtue of having subscription fees, had smaller, more enclosed audiences.) As far as the average social media user knows, all that they are doing is sharing a little personal information with Facebook, Google or Twitter in exchange for more “relevant” content, which they can consume for free.

The content is the killer. How exactly a social media algorithm determines what its users want to see is utterly opaque. That is a problem. Most Internet users consume their information through a social media platform, which means that the platform has an utterly disproportionate influence on what they’re seeing. Technically, they are giving their users exactly what they want, and isn’t that a good thing?

Absolutely not. Only what John Naughton calls a “half-educated tech elite” would ignore the deeper impacts on human society in pursuit of some cool new algorithms and a few billion dollars in advertising revenue.

The Decline and Fall of Media Empires

The advent of social media as a news source has (as discussed) led to the creation of echo chambers; new, exclusionary tribalist identities; and destroyed behavioural norms formed over millennia in favour of less socially useful ones. There is also a parallel, equally dangerous effect: as social media rises, traditional news media warps and declines.

As the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas argued back in 2007, a pluralistic, democratic society needs a reliable source of facts to shape public opinion and provide grounds for consensus and debate. This is especially important in societies where there are wide gulfs between groups. Historically, news media has provided this public forum for consensus-building.

While some outlets have had leanings towards Party A or economic doctrine B, or were owned by billionaire C or corporation D, there was a general consensus on what was “acceptable” to be covered or discussed. This was usually the same as what was “acceptable” to the state, the Constitution, or some sort of legal/moral compass. So, for example, the media would take down Richard Nixon after Watergate, but remain relatively silent or ineffective over the systemic issues that came with globalisation, or CIA coups in South America.

By exercising its power over agenda-setting, the media enforced the “Overton Window” – the acceptable limits of political discourse, and of political action. Editors curated articles that laid the basis for public information and debate. This debate (in general) would then build on some sort of facts, or at least a generally-accepted “truth”. It thus provided a platform for consensus-building. Media also moderated and controlled public opinion, providing a valuable independent check to politicians and the state.

Figure 1. The Role of the Media in a democracy.

To a certain extent, they were beholden to advertisers, but the primary revenue source for traditional media was through subscriptions. Social media, which is “free” to everyone, destroyed that. Why pay for a newspaper when one can get the hottest, most “relevant” news from an online-only platform for free? This changed the logic of the media. As subscriptions declined, they had to shift online. Since they could no longer charge subscription fees to pay for quality reporting, they had to either dilute quality, or get revenue from ads. This meant that instead of being able to provide relatively independent or unbiased opinion, they had to shift to more emotional, “trending” (again determined by social media), or partisan content to get clicks via social media platforms. Instead of the media setting the public agenda, social media-defined “public agendas” decided what the media would publish.

And on top of it, since the Internet had made content generation so cheap, people were already informing themselves from their own bubbles anyway!

As the media’s moderation of public opinion waned, politicians began to connect with voters directly. People who could once only interact with their rulers through petitions, lobbying, protests, or by getting media attention could now tweet, share, or “like”, rallying support for policies they liked, or protesting things that they didn’t. It started off as a good thing. But sidelining the media meant that there was no longer an independent agenda-setting platform for fact-based debates in democratic societies, which could or would hold the state and the government accountable. If anyone could reach out to those in power directly, the powerful no longer had to listen to the press. The Overton Window was destroyed. And what was the result?

The Dictatorship of the Nationalists

The last few decades of globalisation have changed economies and societies the world over. Former colonies have become hubs of low-cost manufacturing and sent immigrants to their former overlords, skilled workers from historically underprivileged groups have managed to rise to the highest echelons of power. Traditional structures such as patriarchy and caste have come under assault, and minority groups have been able to organise better and demand redressal or affirmative action.

For the younger generation, social media has emerged in a context where (in the Third World) job creation has slowed and gender ratios are increasingly skewed – thanks especially to a cultural preference for males. Any society with an excess of unemployed, unmarried males faces serious social discord, as The Economist reports. Meanwhile, in Western societies, especially the US, the younger generation has grown up in suburban anonymity with poor cultural moorings. They also face systemic issues of debt and unemployment. This is a vast, cross-generational group of disaffected and resentful people.

While the traditional media did cover a lot of these issues, they never became political hot topics. This might have has something to do with the nature of media-age politics itself, in that it preferred to tackle problems that will get tons of short-term publicity from solving superficial problems, as opposed to more difficult long-term issues that might not pay off electorally. Either way, it meant that the problem went unresolved, to express itself explosively today.

That said, the moral/legal compass of the press meant that actions that were imminently dangerous to social order would usually be condemned and criticised mercilessly, thus moderating the actions of those in power. For example, a right-wing vigilante group would get so much bad press, and create such a public backlash, that the state would be forced to act. Or a President who lied and bent the Constitution for political gain would be forced to say “I am not a crook” and eventually resign for fear of impeachment.

But now, as the media has been sidelined, neither can they rally public opinion nor can they force the state to act. Social media now directly controls how citizens interact with the government and vice versa. There is no buffer. It is then reasonable to conclude that the best-organised groups on social media can dominate public discourse, and set agendas for the government, in a way that they could not earlier.

Figure 2. Media versus Social Media in a Democracy

Keep in mind that social media makes it easy for non-spatial groups to form around strong, exclusionary identities (Article 1). As a result, the strongest voices there are those of highly-motivated fringe identity groups. Such groups are usually resentful of having lost their historical privileges due to globalisation – and thus tend to push highly nationalistic narratives. They don’t even need what would be considered a “genuine” grievance – social media makes it easy for anger to bubble up over conspiracy theories and fake news, and a perceived lack of support from traditional media outlets.

Posts by these groups appeal to instant emotional responses such as fear and disgust – and due to the sheer volume of content on social media, people have no mental space to analyse all their claims rationally, and process them using instinctive responses (Article 2). They appeal especially to the cross-generational group described above, which has been growing increasingly self-radicalised and united. Further, these groups cast their political behaviour as a “struggle” or war, drawing on the human biological inclination to tribalism.

And to make things worse, since fact-based reporting has now crumbled in the face of “emotional” reporting and fake news, there is no common platform for consensus (even on something as basic as “what happened”) or debate. Unlike traditional media, social media – in pursuit of “better” advertising algorithms – widens existing social divides and puts people into echo chambers.

As online and offline experiences merge into what Luciano Floridi calls “onlife”, online behaviour, norms, and political leanings translate increasingly into offline behaviour and political mobilisation. Fringe identity groups can now mobilise to an unprecedented extent, appeal to a much larger population. Trolling behaviour online translates to vigilantism offline.

Margets et al., in Political Turbulence, point out that political behaviour has changed on the other end of the spectrum as well. A “like” or a “share” for an issue that one is concerned about comes with a nice visual and haptic response, creating the illusion of meaningful action. Furthermore, these issues are not as emotionally polarising, or cast in the same way as the issues spread by fringe groups, so they receive a lot less electoral mobilisation. The mainstream, therefore, becomes less of a political force while the extremists capture more and more space.

In a democracy, we can expect that politicians will egg these groups on for electoral benefit, using social media to mobilise them and silence opposition. After all, power is determined by how large their majority in parliament is – not the actual percentage of people who support them. Since the majority is too diffused and splintered to unite, it is easier for political parties to radicalise one group via social media and reap the benefits.

They can do this by exploiting existing anger, by spreading fake news, by creating bots, and by paying “influencers” to spread the word. As the online footprint of fringe groups grows, traditional media also covers them (how else will they get ad revenue through social media?), expanding their influence even further. A sort of “unholy nexus” between political leaders, disaffected people, social media and the traditional media enables and propagates ugly fringe movements masquerading as majoritarian. Not everything in this process is voluntary – often, actors are merely responding to deep structural issues as best as they can. The very nature of a networked society gives these responses cascading, unforeseeable and unexpected consequences.

Finally, once such a government comes to power, it can directly influence public opinion without the interference of a fact-based media. The power of the state can be openly applied to misinformation, enacting extremist or outright authoritarian policies with little fear of electoral backlash or bad press. In a democratic country, such as India or the US, this can have a devastating effect on social harmony.

What can we do about it?

The situation is not beyond redemption (yet). While majoritarian groups easily organise around “negative” emotional responses such as fear and disgust, most people vote for them because they voice issues that have been traditionally ignored. Some of them, such as a loss of jobs due to globalisation, are legitimate and do need to be addressed. The fact that right-wing parties have largely failed to deliver on their promises to do so has discredited some to a considerable extent – the British public’s reaction to Theresa May’s handling of Brexit being a case in point.

This creates an opportunity for the other end of the spectrum – as attested by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, who for decades were considered to be too far to the left, and have been able to capitalise on the collapse of the “traditional” Overton window, if a little slower than their opponents have.

There is still room for issue-based political discourse: it just needs to be better organised. A broad coalition of groups which have up to this point been too heterogenous to unite (in contrast to relatively homogeneous nationalists) can still score electoral victories. “Positive” emotions such as “hope” – which formed the bedrock of Barack Obama’s social media strategy in 2008 – can still work. It might, however, be a little risky to leave the stability of all modern democracies to the uncertainties of election day.

This essay should make it clear that the increasing slant towards majoritarianism-based social discord in democracies is due to four high-level institutional factors:

  1. General resentment, due to
    1. Deep systemic issues such as skewed gender ratios and unemployment caused by globalisation,
    2. A failure by states to address deep systematic issues, partially because of the nature of media-age politics.
  2. Social media creating content-delivery algorithms which
    1. Reinforce and exploit human biological tendencies in an opaque fashion in pursuit of ad-driven profits;
    2. Change the nature of political behaviour;
    3. Change the logic of the traditional media, making it put out content which will appeal to online readers.
  3. The above led to the shrinking of independent forums and broad consensuses on facts which facilitate debate and criticise the government in pluralistic societies;
  4. Culminating in the takeover of existing democratic structures, which emphasise simple majorities as opposed to consensus-building and negotiation.

This list is not exhaustive, and further research must be done to explore the nuances of each. That said, the current global crisis – of the world depending on an ageing, trigger-happy “billionaire” with serious ego issues – is evidently the result of decades of failures. It was not inevitable – but nor is it impossible to resolve.

Mara Hvistendahl argues in Unnatural Selection (2011) that Western fears of overpopulation leading to poverty and Communism led them to tolerate, if not outright promote, female foeticide (in addition to existing cultural biases). This is a horror which must be faced and addressed.

Social media companies have ended up causing tremendous damage, making billions in profits with little concern to the social costs  – even admitting to knowing about Russian attempts to influence the 2016 American election. The Internet can and must remain free but it must also be transparent. Social media can play an immensely positive role in the 21st century. But it won’t do that by itself – online communities must hold themselves up to standards. Internet gaming streams, which often become lurking grounds for harassment, abuse, and the “alt-right”, are attempting to deal with the problem with zero-tolerance policies, strong behavioural norms, community reporting, and support for victims. This could be a use-case for how social media companies can improve the standards of engagement, and make the Internet a freer place for its users.

At a higher level, democratic societies must tolerate debate and dissent. Reforms are needed to make them more representative while also ensuring that the rights of minorities are protected. “First-past-the-post” and “winner-takes-all” systems are in danger of succumbing to takeover by well-organised extremist groups who only have to get more votes than the other party. This can pose a serious long-term threat to social and even economic stability. Of course, reforms alone are not sufficient: political leaders will only stop supporting fringe elements if they are given strong signals that it will hurt them electorally. The onus is on the citizenry to prove this.

As a species, it is time for us to think long and hard about how we got here and where we would like to go. Writing this series has daunted me with the magnitude and complexity of the problems that we face today. But untangling them, and studying our history from the Stone Age to Silicon Valley, has given me hope. We are a resourceful and inventive bunch. Even if Donald Trump unleashes a nuclear apocalypse, some of us will stick around and (probably) rebuild. Things don’t need to go so far, though – if only we can let go of our frustration for long enough to get together, talk it out, and do something about it.

This is a three part series which explores radically networked series. Read Part 1 on human nature and Part 2 on the Age of Outrage.

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About the author

Anirudh Kanisetti

Anirudh Kanisetti is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution. A graduate of BITS Pilani Goa, his research interests range from systems modelling to geostrategy, economics, history and culture.