Is Social Media Good or Bad for Democracy?

Essay by Cass R. Sunstein,  as  part of a series by Facebook on social media and democracy: “On balance, the question of whether social media platforms are good for democracy is easy. On balance, they are not merely good; they are terrific. For people to govern themselves, they need to have information. They also need to be able to convey it to others. Social media platforms make that tons easier.

There is a subtler point as well. When democracies are functioning properly, people’s sufferings and challenges are not entirely private matters. Social media platforms help us alert one another to a million and one different problems. In the process, the existence of social media can prod citizens to seek solutions.

Consider the remarkable finding, by the economist Amartya Sen, that in the history of the world, there has never been a famine in a system with a democratic press and free elections. A central reason is that famines are a product not only of a scarcity of food, but also a nation’s failure to provide solutions. When the press is free, and when leaders are elected, leaders have a strong incentive to help.

Mental illness, chronic pain, loss of employment, vulnerability to crime, drugs in the family – information about all these spread via social media, and they can be reduced with sensible policies. When people can talk to each other, and disclose what they know to public officials, the whole world might change in a hurry.

But celebrations can be awfully boring, so let’s hold the applause. Are automobiles good for transportation? Absolutely, but in the United States alone, over 35,000 people died in crashes in 2016.

Social media platforms are terrific for democracy in many ways, but pretty bad in others. And they remain a work-in-progress, not only because of new entrants, but also because the not-so-new ones (including Facebook) continue to evolve. What John Dewey said about my beloved country is true for social media as well: “The United States are not yet made; they are not a finished fact to be categorically assessed.”

For social media and democracy, the equivalents of car crashes include false reports (“fake news”) and the proliferation of information cocoons — and as a result, an increase in fragmentation, polarization and extremism. If you live in an information cocoon, you will believe many things that are false, and you will fail to learn countless things that are true. That’s awful for democracy. And as we have seen, those with specific interests — including politicians and nations, such as Russia, seeking to disrupt democratic processes — can use social media to promote those interests.

This problem is linked to the phenomenon of group polarization — which takes hold when like-minded people talk to one another and end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk. In fact that’s a common outcome. At best, it’s a problem. At worst, it’s dangerous….(More)”.