Both democracy and social media are integral features of the average person’s daily life. As of 2020, there are more than 3.8 million users on social media. While social media becomes increasingly important to society, with people using it both in profession and leisurely settings, it is crucial to look at how it affects democracies worldwide. Both polarizing social media algorithms and intrusive government surveillance of the internet have compromised democratic liberties. However, if social media companies take precautions, they could transform social media into a tool that connects diverse people and ideas.
The algorithm used by social media sites polarizes people by exposing them only to viewpoints that they align with ideologically. Twitter’s algorithm, for example, recommends tweets to users that are similar to tweets they have previously interacted with. Along with recommending related tweets, Twitter shows individuals tweets in a chronological order from most to least recent. This means users could see a response to a tweet before seeing the tweet itself. Because of this, people may form a bias on the situation before knowing its full context. Similarly, Facebook’s algorithm prioritizes content similar to that which a user has previously interacted with. It looks for posts that have comment activity and are interactive. Although Twitter and Facebook serve different purposes, both their algorithms prioritize showing users posts they think the latter will likely prefer to view. By placing users in a filter bubble, political polarization is likely to occur. Yet, polarization is dangerous to the democratic process, as it keeps people of different viewpoints from interacting and possibly forming new opinions.
Government interference in social media may be the greatest threat to the democratic process and freedom of speech. According to a study by Freedom House, social media has enabled governments to collect and analyze mass amounts of data on populations. Iran, for example, enables a group of 42,000 volunteers whose sole job is to monitor online speech. One way these volunteers monitor speech is by creating fraudulent accounts to connect with real-life users and gain access to networks. Authoritative governments have used available data to identify and silence perceived threats and undesirable speech. For example, in Kazakhstan, following the resignation of president Nursultan Nazarbayev and political unrest over an unfair election, the government disrupted internet connectivity, blocked local and international news websites, and restricted access to social media platforms for all citizens.
Even seemingly progressive countries are not immune to using social media in a regressive manner. Countries like the United States monitor social media platforms closely, search travelers’ phones and go as far as to access their social media accounts at borders. In fact, a large portion of the responsibility to fix the issue of government interference in social media lies on the US government. Many of the leading social media platforms are based in the United States and in order to remedy the situation, the country must hold social media companies accountable.
As problematic as social media can be for democracy, it also offers benefits. In a survey, it was revealed that the citizens of Nigeria and Kenya believed social media had caused an increase in government transparency. Similarly, when surveyed, 57% of people believed social media had increased their access to information, ease of communication and 50% believed it had improved their freedom of expression. Overall, by reforming the current algorithms in place and increasing the amount of responsibility on social media companies by the United States Government, social media could become a tool for promoting democracy. Social media has a unique ability to connect diverse groups of people in an accessible way. In theory, social media could allow people with opposing opinions to have constructive conversations about divisive issues. When used correctly, social media can expose people to new ideas, allow them to converse on controversial topics in a safe manner, and allow citizens to express their quarrels with the government without serious repercussions.