Are Social Media Threats to Democracy?

Speaker - Murtaza Hussain

In this event hosted by Google Developer Student Club and LSE International Media and Journalism Society, we discuss the impact of social media in 21st-century politics with Murtaza Hussain, a renowned journalist from The Intercept in New York City. Murtaza Hussain is a reporter at The Intercept who focuses on the areas of national security and foreign policy. He has appeared on CNN, BBC, MSNBC, and other news outlets.

Media in the current age

From the Obama era to the Trump era, and now the Biden era, we’ve witnessed enormous changes in the media. Twenty or thirty years ago, local and national newspapers and radios/TV programs were the only few major sources of publication. Nowadays every one of us effectively has the newsgathering, publishing and broadcasting ability. You can record a video, broadcast it on social media, and get it across to hundreds and millions of people. This is completely unprecedented. Back then, if you wanted to broadcast a video, you would need to hire a film team, buy expensive equipment, a studio and even licenses.

There are obviously two sides to it. On one hand, the fact that we can all broadcast, share information and communicate with each other has a positive impact. However, this means we cannot really control what is on social media and what is not, we lack the power and authority to cut out some people’s messages from the mainstream just because they’re harmful. Before then if you want to publish an article, you need to apply for a job at the New York Times or write a letter to the editor, whereas now this is all gone.

The older generation usually only go through one era of technology throughout their lifetime. But for the younger generation with today’s fast-growing technologies, it is very likely that we live through multiple eras of technological revolutions. An analogue to this was what happened in the Soviet Union - the pivotal generation back in the 1800s. During that time, people were born in an era without electricity; production heavily agriculture-based, and they lived through an era of history that got hit by multiple waves of revolutions. It is actually strikingly similar to us living through eras of radical changes in technology - the PC era, Google era, Facebook era and now TikTok era. All these gradual changes happen in different contexts and the changes are showing no signs of stopping and everything could feel weird when changes take place. Traditionally, when unfamiliarity arises, the role of cultural institutions was to take things that are new and make them familiar to people so they don’t feel wired anymore, for instance, how they paint the coloured glasses with ancient stories in churches are essentially familiarizing people with changes that have taken place and try to bring a sense of intimacy. But now culture institutions cannot do this because changes are happening way faster than they could cope with. So for the younger generation, it is important to be adaptable to changes and get used to unfamiliarity.

A very interesting quote by media theorist Marshall McLuhan stated that “after the last newspaper is printed, there will never be another revolution, there will only be riots.” What he meant was that the structured way that printing newspapers insinuated the structured time and information that have made certain ways of politics possible. But if newspapers stop being produced, we will enter a new age of politics: Facebook politics, Tik Tok politics etc. The future is going to look different. However, for us, we shouldn’t be anxious but rather we should just accept it and have fun with it. It is important to keep an open mind.

Talks on Regulations and Censorship

The storming of the United States Capitol, where Donald Trump supporters were rioting against the US Congress at the US Capitol in the presidential election in 2020 November made a big news story but what happened afterwards was that Trump was banned from social media, and at that time he was still the president.

The fact that the head of the social media company can ban a president from using social media is very shocking to some political regime. For instance, in India or China, the state would be more powerful than the company, whereas in America the social media giants hold more power. Different cultures have different thresholds or acceptability in terms of how much their freedom of speech is restricted. There is a tension between national sovereignty and individual rights and countries have different priorities, and there is not a definite good or bad between any of them because, in the end, it is just different preferences.

In terms of regulations, it is also very important to recognise the fact that everyone has different opinions and standards towards what would be considered as legitimate speech, hence, it is hard to define the objective measure of it. To ban someone from social media, we need to think about what constitutes legitimate speech. Back in the days, there were many people on Twitter supporting ISIS, but eventually, they were banned in 2012, and in a sense, everyone saw this coming. It shows that we don’t really believe in free speech but instead, we believe in opposing a certain set of values. We’re just enforcing a specific liberal idea of what constitutes good or appropriate and we never really did have free speech and it is now becoming clearer where the limits are.

The extent to which companies are comparable to public institutions depends on the countries. In the US, the question is can we really get sovereignty control over these companies? What we see now is that the American government is not asserting their sovereignty over Silicon valley and now many innovations such as Bitcoin could possibly even threaten the position of Dollars in international currency transactions. Would the US government be able to regulate them? The answer is still unclear.

Social media’s impact on political bias and elections

Conversations on political social media are much more radical than offline conversations because the dynamic of it makes it a conversation that never ends. You could go to sleep and when you wake up you would go back to it, which is not true when you have face to face conversation. Eventually, the arguments then become more and more radical with people coming up with more extreme stances.

Using Trump as an example, in my personal opinion, there is no way that Trump would be elected without the influence of social media. The dynamics of social media conversations are replicating themselves in the real world and the way Politicians are interacting on social media has changed a lot. We are even seeing politicians “dunking” on social media and that’s definitely not the way they used to talk to each other.

Social media is shaping the way we think. Although radicalization is a value-neutral term and there’s nothing fundamentally bad about it, many media now are espousing certain political views and we rarely see neutral media organizations. Things are much more contingent than just being the truth and many things generated on social media are the product of radical emotions. Especially regarding politics and elections, there could be various forms of manipulations.

The best we can do is to be aware that we are using the media but the media is also in a sense using us. Being conscious of it helps a lot and we can always remind ourselves to take a step back and pull ourselves out from such manipulation, getting swamped in social media manipulation is comparable to getting drunk and keeping a level of sanity is very important.

Positive impacts brought by social media

Nonetheless, social media has also brought many benefits to the media and journalism industry. For people who have had privilege and power in the old system, this newly emerging social media might be a threat to them, as the old system is set up to serve a function of gatekeeping.

In the old days, there are only a few people who you could call “celebrities''. Nowadays there are thousands and millions of talented people on Tik Tok, and we realized that the position that celebrities had before is just a result of gatekeeping.

Many talented people are now able to showcase their abilities and reach audiences through social media platforms. People believe in and subscribe to people or topics, for example, #BlackLifeMatters, that would have no play in the old system as it would have been kept out by the gate. Many sentiments have always existed, but they were just not allowed to have a platform and now we have to respect them because there are people who believe in them.

Q&A Highlights

Do you think there is too much information and bubbles in the media?

There is definitely an unprecedented avalanche of writing. Before we only focused on canonical writers, now no one knows where the centre of focus lies anymore. There is just an unprecedented amount of things that you could choose to focus on.

When democracy first happened, they never banked on social media but on the printing press and traditional mode of communication. There’s going to be interesting social effects, bubbles and tribes. People are suggesting that we’re moving from a world of nation-states to a world of networks. People from different continents connect online with shared interest whereas you might find little similarities with people living right near you geographically.

Although in some political regimes, there are still restrictions on what content you could publish on social media, there will definitely be an unprecedented amount of publishing so we need to develop skills to deal with information overflowing and adapt to this saturated information environment.

If the system of democracy itself is not designed to work with social media, to what extent does the system require change?

Ideally, we should make sure the technology progresses in a way that suits our values and interests and more importantly, we are able to control the direction of it. But there are a few challenges to it. The first is that new technologies are being invented at a faster pace than the design and implementation of laws and regulations on it. The second reason is that in today’s highly competitive global market, the US is no longer the sole leader of technology progress so even if the US puts regulations in place on its technologies, they cannot control what other countries such as China would come up with and monetization of technology can happen extremely fast.

Should platforms be held accountable for the contents shown on their platform?

Currently, platforms are being held accountable. For example, people would criticize Twitter for allowing racist contents to be posted. However the question goes back again to who defines racism, and if we think about it, it’s probably people who are most angry about them, so is this biased?

Everyone on social media nowadays has the ability to “flack”. They could easily complain about the posts they don’t like and so whether we should hold them legally accountable is still debatable as the definitions of what counts as “crime” and what doesn’t could be stretched and cannot be well defined. However, social accountabilities are definitely happening.

The final piece of advice

Living in a generation where everything is different may be extremely disorienting. Many unexpected things could happen, for instance, an individual can hack an entire infrastructure and you would have no idea about how your data is being collected and where they are being used.

My biggest advice is to start practising good internet hygiene and protect your own data because in my opinion data is the new oil and they’re as important as your DNA.

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