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How social media is eroding our democracy

How social media is eroding our democracy

Written by
Adrian Heaps
July 30th, 2019

Our Canadian democracy is being threatened not by a physical invasion, but by an insidious digital one that is changing our decision-making abilities, and ultimately our democratic structures.

How social media is eroding our democracy

Parliament Hill, Ottawa (Photo by Clem Sim on Unsplash)

When George Orwell penned his famous essay on politics and the English language, he lamented that language was being assaulted by bad grammar and syntax. The result was malformed articles and quotes that created false impressions. But, prescient as that might have been, even Orwell could not have foreseen the onslaught of mass media that permeates our lives now.

Today, mass media is characterized by the digital domain, that universe of algorithms and predictive analytics that have accelerated beyond our human capabilities to deal with it. Of course we think we’re in control, because if we accepted the premise that we are being manipulated by some amorphous third party, there would be societal breakdown. However, we are already travelling down the rabbit hole into a new domain that is not only defining the very essence of our humanity but contributing to the erosion of free thought and the democratic rule of law.

This phenomenon did not occur overnight. It’s an insidious process that grew from the realization that by controlling the message, we control its outcome. In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “The medium is the message.” He predicted that media would become “an extension of our central nervous system,” creating a “tribalization of the world.” While he never used the exact words, he was actually predicting the internet.

Marshall Mcluhan Full lecture: The medium is the message - 1977 part 1 v 3

Mass media is part of our daily diet. From morning to night, our hands are hungry for information. And while we feast on this information overload, we are quietly preparing our hearts and minds for the invasion of our human psyche.

A whole generation has embraced Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and made them part of their lives. To what end? Do we make better decisions? Are we better communicators? Have we learned how to harness new technologies, or have they harnessed us? While we may pass off technologies as fads, we are failing to notice how our decision-making abilities are being influenced by outside forces, and redefining our democratic structures.

Canadians have grown up with democracy. We think of it as an inherent right; embedded in our Constitution. Because we have never been repressed by despotic regimes or had our democratic freedoms really threatened, we fail to understand what the true loss of these rights would be. As spectators we bear witness to repressive governments around the world, never thinking that we could be threatened on our own soil.

The problem is that we perceive a threat to democracy as a physical invasion of our country, instead of the digital invasion taking place. The formula is simple and ingenious. Take an issue with a foundation in fact, like tormented populations leaving their countries to seek a better life, then build the narrative of marauding gangs and rapists who threaten our lives. The key is not so much the story, which is based on revisionist ideology, but the targeted populations who will be susceptible to this theme.

While we may pass off new technologies as fads, we are failing to notice how our decision-making abilities are being influenced by outside forces, and redefining our democratic structures.

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There is a constantly growing network of companies that specialize in trolling the digital domain, seeking Facebook or Instagram accounts extolling values that reflect the narrative they are intent on marketing. Social media devices are now an appendage of the human anatomy, and we’re not about to let go. These companies know this, and they also know that the sheer volume of information we receive every day makes it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.

Those brought up in the analogue world used to understand that information should be corroborated and not always taken at face value. No time for that today. Instead, we are being exposed to what passes for a credible source, although we rarely question it, because the speed at which we receive the information outweighs our inclination to verify it. It’s not that we don’t want to question the information. It’s simply easier not to, because it appeals so much to our core beliefs. Some might call this rationalization; others insidious brainwashing. The results are the same, and we end up reinforcing beliefs that can affect our decision making.

Little by little, the public’s appetite for corroboration is whittled down in a process that confirms its pre-existing beliefs. It is a type of cognitive bias which systematically supports inductive reasoning, or what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” Over time, we perpetuate the reinforcement of an issue in our minds, which often translates into a defined action. By reducing the thirst for knowledge, we start to lose our capacity for the other side's viewpoint and become more susceptible to influence which reaffirms our own positions.

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There is also a new reality emerging on mass media. In the future, don’t expect intelligent discourse and debate on a given issue. Instead, we will be exposed to truths (fake news) and counter truths, and whoever is better at delivering a plausible line with authority will be the winner.

The distribution of information and the dissemination of knowledge should never be confused, although it’s becoming harder to distinguish between them. The real threat to our democracy is that we are starting to shape our decisions on bite-sized portions of information, which we use to make decisions on how we accept legislation, vote for leaders and ultimately reshape the democratic structures of our country.

The threat to our democracy has now been recognized by the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, which announced that “social media botnet amplification” and the use of social media by adversaries to reach their audience may involve using dummy accounts to amplify a specific message or user.

The real threat to our democracy is that we are starting to shape our decisions on bite-sized portions of information, which we use to make decisions on how we accept legislation, vote for leaders and reshape the democratic structures of our country.

The problem is compounded by the consolidation of mass media empires, which makes it easier to control the media cycles which run 24 hours a day. Combine this with the rapid growth of mobile wireless, internet access and cable, satellite and IPTV (where television services are delivered via the Internet), and we are all headed towards the new mass media environment. This is a worldwide wave, though some countries have attempted to curb consolidation. In Canada, however, Bell, Rogers, Shaw and Telus account for 70 per cent of the media landscape.

Despite the bleak outlook, the mass media revolution also has positive implications. It was the use of social media that spawned the Arab spring, and even though the results fell short of expectations, it created an awareness of its power for good. As a result of elections in the United States, there has been an outcry and a re-engagement of certain segments of the population; most notably women and young people, who realize that it is possible to mobilize opinion against opposing forces. This would not have been possible without social media.

Activist Alaa Salah captured the world’s attention and shined a spotlight on the uprisings in Sudan when a video of her addressing a crowd of demonstrators became viral over social media platforms.

The racism, misogyny and xenophobia that marked the U.S. presidential election weren’t invented by social media; they existed for decades before any alleged interference. The campaign was built on a platform of anti- social behaviour. Forces like Cambridge Analytica and Russian influences simply took advantage of the underlying issues, which enabled the interference and manipulation of public opinion. The elimination of these actors won’t end racism and inequality. Those changes are at the mercy of our democratic system.

It is important to recognize that mass media is linked to democracy, by virtue of its undue influence. Democracy still has the power to exert control over its own destiny for the public good. We should be invigorated by the realization that democracy is not a birthright. It is an entity that has been moulded and advocated for over time. Vigilance is needed to ensure that we seize every opportunity to grow and preserve it.

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A journalism crisis is threatening Canadian democracy.