Social media is derailing progressive democracies

Social media is derailing progressive democracies

Despite its promise of greater freedom and democratic participation, social media stifles dissent and damages our politics.

By Prabhat Garg

Published on :

In the run-up to the 2014 national elections in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) became, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, the first national political party to fully grasp the importance of social media as a communications strategy. Social media allowed the BJP to target a vast demographic (comprising over 60 per cent of the population) of the young and tech-savvy. It also helped the party bypass Modi’s uneasy equation with the mainstream Indian media, which had been largely critical of his handling of the 2002 Gujarat communal riots as Chief Minister.

Emerging victorious after an enormous marketing blitzkrieg that involved an unprecedented use of social media for electioneering, Narendra Modi was hailed as India’s first social media prime minister and the 2014 national elections was dubbed by some as “India’s first social media elections”. In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the battle for social media dominance has only gotten fiercer.

The wild west of human interaction

Social media can be liberating. It enables individuals to escape the conservative, pejorative and restrictive practices of real-life communities and assert their individuality and independence. It allows people to find and build an audience for their ideas, and to collaborate and connect with others. It makes it really simple to broadcast one’s message to the whole world while leveraging the “viral” effects of a network. And it can work like magic for mobilising people for a mass movement like it did in the Arab Spring. All these take the cause of a progressive democracy forward.

However, social media is increasingly fuelled by a technology that is addictive by design, and relies on provocation and creating unrest as a means of generating repeat interactions on the media. This leads to a culture where one is voicing every single thought in one’s brain via a giant megaphone, openly being hostile to people with opposing views, and indulging in name-calling, mudslinging and narcissistic games of one-upmanship. In short, social media is incentivising us to let our demons loose.

Social media is swinging elections in democracies

It should come as no surprise that political outfits have become expert at understanding and exploiting the psychographics of social media engagement for their gains.

In 2016, 50 million (roughly 15 per cent of the entire US population) Facebook profiles were harvested by Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm working for the US Presidential candidate Donald Trump, and used for influencing election choices. Trump won the 2016 race. Of the total US population, 77 per cent is now on social media and increasingly relies on it as their primary source of news.

In India’s 2014 general elections, which the BJP won by a landslide, social media engagement affected the outcome of up to 30-40 per cent of overall seats, and the BJP’s IT cell relied extensively on data analytics to manage sentiment and craft campaigns. In the upcoming 2019 elections, social media may affect the outcome of more than 60 per cent of the seats. More than 326 million Indians are now on social media, up from 106 million in 2014.

A majoritarian and ideological propaganda machine

With such a big captive audience on offer, social media has evolved into a battlefield where political strategies are now being devised, tested and executed. From misinformation about vaccines to spreading fake news to live-streaming a terrorist attack, ideologues across the spectrum are finding innovative ways to exploit social media.

What helps their cause is a range of attributes designed and built into social media technology. The idea of more followers promotes personality cults and celebrityhood. Since the currency of credibility is the volume of likes/retweets, it implicitly promotes majoritarianism. Debates are preferably condensed to 140 characters or memes, and if you don’t like the voices you hear, you can block them out and secure yourself in an echo chamber.

This is a disaster for political discourse. Democracies need to regularly factor in differences of opinion and build consensus, which is a liberal art and a continual exercise in leadership. But 21st-century democracies are starting to emulate social media worlds, which have been primarily conceptualised and designed by tech engineers working in monopolistic plutocracies.

The environment and the rules of engagement the tech fraternity has created on their platforms is aiding the rise of coercive or authoritarian regimes across a world teetering on economic and ecological disasters. These regimes have mastered the art of using social media as a propaganda machine to inflame majoritarian and nationalist agendas.

Democratising free speech or decentralising censorship?

Social media often prides itself on “democratising free speech”. In a democratic nation, that should automatically entail a strengthening of mechanisms of dissent. Elected governments could constructively harness the immense power of social media technology to generate feedback, both positive and critical, in order to reduce gaps in governance.

However, where an elected leader is prickly about or downright intolerant of criticism, social media often ends up serving as authority’s bully pulpit. Though the Modi government has created dedicated initiatives to directly engage with the people via the Internet, the Prime Minister has not held even a single press conference in his entire tenure. Modi, who is a social media celebrity with 46.5 million Twitter followers, often seems averse to questioning and criticism—a trait he shares with US President Donald Trump, who leads with 59.2 million followers on Twitter.

While Modi himself has always freely and bitterly criticised his opponents, there is often a swarm of his supporters ready to dole out harsh punishments to his detractors. In a climate of intolerance, it takes very little for hate speech to manifest itself as hate on the street, and unpopular speech can be silenced in broad daylight.

Trolling, when carried out by organised or semi-organised groups in favour of a figure of authority, cannot be classified as free speech. Instead, it should be considered censorship by the authority’s propaganda machinery. In keeping with the spirit of our social media times, this kind of censorship is also decentralised: the trolls suddenly emerge, masquerading behind fake accounts, shower abuses and threats and then dissolve into the crowd again.

As India’s falling rank in the world press freedom index indicates, such intimidatory tactics have put India’s traditional media under duress, making it harder to uphold journalistic ethics. In fact, senior NDTV journalist and anchor Ravish Kumar recently went to the extent of advising Indian audiences to stop watching mainstream TV news in the run-up to the national elections.

It is possible to turn off television news, which is a pull-based technology: you can press a button to call for or stop the content stream as you wish. But how possible is it to turn off social media, which works like an invasive push-based technology—in which content is being pushed to you non-stop, 24×7, via your always-on mobile phone? Beyond your social media feed, this kind of technology has its tentacles in your email, your search engine, your work messages, and even your personal Whatsapp messages, where you may suddenly be trustingly waylaid by a close family member or friend into seeing and reacting to messages, and get drawn into an endless and exhausting cycle of vitriol.

Under the prevailing circumstances, turning off this technology may not be feasible. There seems to be no option but to go forth and engage with your opponents in this democratic spectacle, but conserve your energies, develop an internal compass for filtering content while observing your own reactions, rely more on logic than emotion, be civil and patient, and finally: let the Constitution of India guide you—remember that the future of our democracy depends on it.