Think back to the tragic day of 9/11. One video clip immediately comes to mind. An image of the second plane hitting the south tower, viewed from a south-facing perspective. All around the world, people can replay that clip in their heads. It was shown on news outlets for months after the event.
Now, Imagine if 9/11 happened today. What would be different? We would have a million different angles from which to watch the disaster. Maybe we’d even see footage from inside the buildings: heartbreaking scenes of the victim’s last moments; Tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram updates of every second of the catastrophe.
This thought experiment shows the democratic climate we live in today – one where every move is under a scrupulous public microscope. The question that remains is: has social media harmed or helped the political process in the U.S.
A Digital Nation & Changes in Media Habits
Whether we like it or not, the way people are consuming their media has changed. News broadcasters used to control the political narrative; now, it’s in the hands of anyone who owns a computer. Just a quick look at cable TV statistics shows the divergence from traditional media:
- In 2018, more than 3.2 million moved away from cable TV.
- In the first quarter of 2019 alone, another 1 million chose to cut the cord.
- Every day, the cable TV industry loses approx. 14,000 subscribers.
Today, news comes from a diverse range of sources. Newspapers run their own websites, independent blogs have arisen, and every Tom, Dick & Harry can share their two cents on social media. As the political conversation has got louder – to say the least – many are reflecting on the worth of this change.
Is it a good thing that news has become more accessible and diverse? Or are we losing the essence of truth that occurs when commentaries are so distant from the original source? Currently, there are two clear sides to the debate, the most valid of which is yet to be determined.
Let’s consider both the pros and cons of democracy in a digital age.
A Direct Dialogue with the People
One unarguable advantage of social media democracy is the direct channel it’s created between politicians and the people. We can only imagine a world where founding fathers, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, could send out messages that were visible to the whole country. What political catastrophes could have been avoided with this avenue in the past?
In the modern world, Trump has shown how social platforms can be used to communicate and empower voters. Gone are the restraints of political correctness and misquoting, which often occur when traditional media outlets spread important speeches and messages. Now it’s possible for politicians to say exactly what they mean, straight to their target audience.
Social media also has the advantage of reaching non-voters and disenfranchised citizens. Those who would never dream of opening up the politics section of a newspaper use networks like Facebook and Twitter every day. Even if you don’t seek out political figures on the platforms, you’re bound to see shares and retweets that keep you up-to-date.
The Problem with 140 Characters
While social media has afforded significant potential for politicians, it still comes with its fair share of drawbacks. Tweets are made to be short, sharp, and snappy. This requirement is a great marketing tactic, but it’s not the best for political dialogue.
Journalist, Jonathon Chait, notes the restrictions of Twitter commentary:
“Twitter makes it easy to call attention to news or crack jokes, “but you simply cannot have a decent argument, or even discussion there.”
This phenomenon has repeated itself again and again as President Trump has shared his thoughts over the social network. For example, during the aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub attack, Trump commented that the disaster might have been averted if people in the club were armed.
The media was quick to crucify him, stating that they “don’t think you should have firearms where people are drinking.” The president was forced to clarify his statement, saying he meant only staff and security guards.
Without space to adequately explain yourself, this type of misunderstanding is commonplace on social media.
The Social Media Echo Chamber
Another threat from social media democracy is the limitation of information. Social networks have developed to show their users posts that they like. They want people to keep coming back, so they create an environment of agreement and validation.
A recent study uncovered that most of us are living in an online echo chamber. The comprehensive report by Garimella et al. tracked the response to significant political events, and how partisan users on social media treated them. They showed the decreasing likelihood of being exposed to content that questioned your belief system.
On Twitter specifically, users tend to exist in echo chambers, where only one viewpoint was explored. Those who actively shared bipartisan information were also ‘punished’ by a lack of exposure and engagement on their account. In short, the platform splits content into different camps and discourages people from searching for alternate perspectives. The researchers concluded that this could have detrimental effects on the democratic process.
Fact Checking & Critical Thinking
Critical thinking has been essential for democratic growth throughout history. Plato was the first to mention the concept in his records of Socrates’s teaching. In the age of social media, critical thinking is more important than ever. We get our news straight to our phones, tablets, and computers, so it’s easy to take what we read for granted. If we truly want to move forward as a society, it’s time to start questioning the validity of each claim.
Here are some easy tips to fact check what you read on social media:
- Find the Source
Most blogs, posts, and articles talk about singular events. Often these events have been filmed –or at least transcribed. Searching for the source material is a great way to find the reality of the situation.
- Check Opposing Viewpoints
On social media, we only hear one side of the story. To establish the truth of that side, it helps to look at the other. Usually reality lies somewhere between the two.
- Check Fact-Checking Sources
Websites like ‘Snopes’ are bipartisan platforms that dedicate themselves to fact-checking claims and sources. They’ve already disproved most of the ludicrous accusations thrown at Trump.
- Practice Critical Thinking
The internet is awash with resources to help you sharpen your critical thinking. If you’re genuinely dedicated to helping democracy, take the time out to practice these skills and apply them to the content you see.
What’s the Verdict: Is Social Media Helping or Harming?
In the age of information overload, it’s not enough to see political claims online and believe them outright. If we don’t do our due diligence and fact-check claims, then the impact of social media democracy is negative. What results is a voter-base who are strongly misinformed and continually validated in their wrongness by the echo chamber in which they live.
Social media has considerable positive potential. The diversifying of news streams and the possibility to talk directly to the voter base means that it’s harder than ever for politicians to lie or backtrack on what they’ve said. However, it has to be used mindfully for us to get the real benefit.
If social media is going to continue being a political puppet, we have to use it with caution and assiduity.