by Neil Smart Costantino

The importance of Social Media has grown exponentially over the past couple of years. One of the most notable campaigns to change the way Social Media is used in Politics was undoubtedly the Obama Campaign. Unfortunately, where mankind is involved, every positive thing that exists can be exploited in the interest of the few. This has seen the use of Social Media, at times, threatening the basics of democracy.

Back in May 2012, the BBC claimed that the world is going through a ‘Social Media Revolution’. The words, “The world is changing at a speed we could never have imagined before”, have never been so accurate. Long gone are the days of a piece of news spreading through the newspapers, or sometimes even through Television News Stations. In this field, Social Media has surpassed orthodox means of spreading news. People nowadays find it easier to follow the news via Facebook or Twitter. Quite frankly, it is easier this way.

What people are forgetting, however, is that not all sources have the same levels of veracity, and this is where the threats to democracy start to arise. Social Media in Democracy however does have its good side. Taking the Arab Spring as an example, the video of the Tunisian Rebel can be said to have started the revolutions in the region. If it weren’t for social media, who knows what the situation in these countries would be today. When Social Media was still on the rise, it was more of a gamble for Politicians, and even Governments. Its impact was not tested, as a result, only a few politicians who were bold enough to take the risk and switch to social media campaigning, managed to make the most of it; case in point, a certain Barack Obama.

As time went by, Governments were starting to use Social Media not simply to get elected, but also to maintain a relationship with their electorate. Even Government Services were being shifted towards Social Media, to make life easier for citizens. All of this was beneficial, with people feeling closer to the decision-making processes and involved in the things that will in turn affect them and their loved ones. Political Participation was on the rise too. It’s not just political participation that was on the rise, but also the involvement of people. Politicians were going to Social Media for opinions, discussions and even to make announcements. A new platform was ‘created’ and everyone was making the most of it.

Having negative comments on Social Media is the last thing that any Public Official wants. So, it can be said, that in a way, the public was becoming all the more empowered through social media. Gone are the days of sweeping things under the carpet – a one minute Facebook search will dig everything back up. Everyone can be ‘easily’ held accountable for what they do and say. Unfortunately, with the power of holding everyone accountable, problems started arising. A lot of people, even governments and politicians started exploiting the power of social media to push forward an agenda that may not necessarily be genuine.

Given that Social Media was now a hot area, it became an opportunity for exploitation. The phenomenon of ‘Fake News’ is one of the main ways that Social Media is today being used as a threat to Democracy as we know it. If one had to take a look at the Presidential Elections of the United States, the Trump Campaign focussed a lot on this area. Through the rise in news sources, that were not as reliable as others, Mr Trump continuously attacked the main media stations, which were not as fond of the idea of him becoming President. His continued rhetoric that these outlets were spreading the so-called Fake News, influenced people so much so that they started doubting outlets such as CNN, and turning against them. Meanwhile, other sources started pushing forward the agenda that the Trump Camp wanted, and this started increasing the idea of unverified news portals. The basic values of democracy depend on the freedom of media, and social media allowed for this to be exploited. Essentially, anyone can open up a Facebook or Twitter Page and spread the ‘news’ that they want. Problems start when this is either not verified, or biased towards someone, or an idea.

The alleged meddling in elections is another threat to democracy. Meddling in elections may not necessarily be exactly on the electoral process, however, it can also be in influencing the way people think. The Russian Government in particular, employs people to take over Facebook Posts and control the commenting and the way a message is received. As a result, people in general will end up influenced by the way the general public is influenced. After all, it is human nature that if the vast majority is swayed towards an idea, many will find it difficult to go against it. While everyone is entitled to his/her opinion, in essence, this goes against democracy in the way that people’s ideas are manipulated.

Around 10 years ago, Social Media can be said to have been viewed as a beacon for people to come together and interact. A few years down the line, with so many possible exploitation areas, it is becoming a huge threat to democracy as we know it. The main idea behind Social Media was initially to bring people together, however, over time, through the misuse of some influential people, it developed into a monster that no one wants to poke in today’s world.

23 April 2018
This text was published in Bullseye issue 72