There was a time when social media was by and large a place where people “over shared” details about their personal lives, with some believing it was necessary to post the minutia of everyday life. Those could almost be considered “the good days” compared to how social media has evolved.
Today, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have become echo chambers for espousing political views – and where there is all too often an absence of civility for those with differing opinions.
“On the topic of politics, social media is where civility and decorum go to die,” warned Craig Barkacs, professor of business law and ethics in the Masters in Executive Leadership and MBA Programs at the Knauss School of Business at the University of San Diego.
Part of the problem does come back to the fact that we’ve become engrained to over share on social media, and it is only in recent years that this sharing has moved to politics. Moreover, the platforms actively encourage this type of interaction.
“We’re anonymous, so why not blurt out every thought that comes to mind? It feels cathartic,” said James Bailey, professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business.
In many ways, social media is just a digital version of the original “soap boxes” pundits that first appeared in the 1870s in London’s Hyde Park at Speakers’ Corner, where many would gather to discuss religion, politics, and other hot-button topics of the day.
“The unhinged preached their political gospels. Some listened, some didn’t,” said Bailey. “But that didn’t stop those crusaders – righteous or not – from taking the stage. Similarly, today’s social media platforms are perfectly crafted to desperately uninformed actors who choose to be anonymous then shrink back home.”
There was a time when most people were of the belief that it was best not to discuss hot-button topics such as politics in polite company. Today that may not be an issue because few are actually all that polite on social media.
It is made worse by the fact that every voice on social media carries the potential weight of a pundit, while elected officials increasing rely on the platforms to listen to what the masses have to say.
“The problem is not whether social media is an echo chamber. The problem is that politicians listen to social media, where it is easy to analyze but difficult to interpret,” explained Anne Washington, assistant professor of data policy within the Online EdD program at NYU Steinhardt.
Yet, it is not entirely clear whether much of the social media sentiment equates with actual voters. Rather a politician listening to social media is like someone at a cocktail party trying to listen to the person two tables away, suggested Washington. The loudest voices then carry the most weight.
“Social media is not designed to help politicians hear only their constituents,” she added. “Geography is not important on the Internet but is critical in a representational democracy. Politicians still need to know who is a real voter.”
This Discourse Is Good For The Platforms
It is unlikely that platforms will attempt to address the discourse they’ve essentially created, simply because it is good for them.
“As for whether people over share too much on social media when it comes to politics; I’m reminded of the question, ‘Is it good to gamble at a casino?’ Yes, for the casino,” noted Barkacs.
Accordingly, it’s likewise good for social media platforms when people rant about their political views—the angrier and more fear-inducing, the better. This keeps users engaged. Moreover, the anger and fear once aroused can be powerful and gripping emotions, which is why they’re leveraged so heavily in the political arena.
“For the rest of us, however, social media politicking can be hard to stomach, and we’d like to think we should know better than to go there,” said Barkacs. “Social media is a big part of the problem but is only part of the toxic mix. Unscrupulous politicians purposefully serve up outrage, lies, and indignation on social media for their own political ends, all of which make agitated partisans, addictive social media platforms, and cynical manipulators a particularly sinister brew.”
Unlike those who once had to stand on a literal soapbox to make their rants heard, today anyone can do so from their computers and mobile devices. Even worse is the fact that those actually dishing out the insults have become keyboard warriors who can cower in anonymity. They tend not to completely flip someone’s views with social media alone, which is a tall order, but they can amplify the beliefs of already like-minded individuals.
“Profoundly self-obsessed as they sadistically stir the pot, they’re often blind to their own ironic stew of cowardice and narcissism,” said Barkacs. “The greater danger is how observers in nominal agreement with highly partisan keyboard warriors might be swayed to intensify – and in some cases radicalize—their once more moderate views, thus becoming more receptive to outlandish claims and unsupported conspiracy theories, which, of course, exacerbates polarization.”
Not Only An American Problem
It would be easy to dismiss this as simply an American phenomenon, but based on how it has stirred up protesters in Brazil and created discord across Europe, it is clear that the era of “anti-social media” has become a worldwide concern.
Just a few years ago, the UK Parliament’s Health and Wellbeing Service advised all members of Parliament to close down their Twitter accounts as the level of abuse members were being subjected to had gotten out of hand.
“Social media echo chambers are not just a U.S., problem – nations around the world are struggling with these questions,” said Washington. “Viral social media posts may have played a role in the 2022 Philippine elections. In Canada, the Trudeau administration had to answer questions of international interference in elections just this month. And don’t forget that the initial success stories that Cambridge Analytica described in their advertising pointed to helping politicians in Indonesia, Kenya, and elsewhere.”
However, the United States could look to other nations’ efforts to address these problems.
“Other countries are attempting to find legislative remedies,” added Barkacs. “In 2017, Germany passed the Network Enforcement Act, which required social media companies to take down hate speech within 24 hours of notification. In 2022, Japan’s parliament passed legislation making ‘online insults’ on offense that could result in a jail sentence of up to one year. Unfortunately, the polarization contamination is worldwide with no obvious cure in sight.”