In 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, it looked like new media technologies were going to give rise to democracies in the developing world. In 2017, it looks like their main influence will be to undermine the conditions for democratic politics here at home.
A major study of social media news consumption helps quantify the way social networks sort people into homogeneous political bubbles that create the perfect conditions for runaway confirmation bias and groupthink. From Ars Technica‘s summary of the research:
Users tend to confine their activity to a limited set of pages. These behaviors allow news consumption on Facebook to be dominated by selective exposure, meaning that people are most often exposed to news sources that reinforce their existing opinions. Though social media critics have been making this claim for a while, the authors’ quantification of this behavior adds strong empirical evidence to the argument. […]
Since we’ve become so attached to social media, we are less and less required to interact with people who disagree with us. Technology allows us to reach across state lines (and even oceans) to find people who share our beliefs and values. Until social media designers can address the fact that these platforms allow the increasing polarization of users into small, tight-knit communities, stopping the proliferation of misinformation will continue to be a challenge.
This study would seem to confirm the solidifying elite consensus that social media, at least as it currently exists, is corrosive to democratic politics—that it allows falsehoods to proliferate within self-reinforcing moral communities and drains the public sphere of genuine cross-ideological engagement.
It’s remarkable that this new consensus seems to be setting in just six years after the start of Arab Spring, when the Davoisie were offering ebullient paeans to social media and its ostensibly transformative potential for democracy and human rights. Silicon Valley was going to “democratize the flow of information”; Twitter was going to hold leaders accountable in new ways; Facebook was going to expand access to political news and dialogue. The number of thinkpieces and books written to this effect is too high to count.
Today, the same Wilsonian media and intellectual class that prognosticated a democratic Middle East brought about by “Twitter revolutions” is warning somberly of the dangers of social media-driven “fake news” that authoritarians can promote and exploit. Tech-utopianism had a good run.