Social Media Vs Democracy: How We Become Willing Pawns In Bigger Games

Ever wondered why social media conversations turn nasty so quickly and why friends appear so different on social media from what they are in real life? It is in the nature of the medium. It allows fast two-way communication like no other mass media platform does; it offers a wide range of information, not depth, it discourages lengthy conversation, which means limited words must have maximum impact; it places few checks on extreme, even reprehensible, views; and it offers comfort to the users that they are not alone their in views, there’s a whole online community backing them.

It’s interesting how every position becomes non-negotiable and minor disagreements turn unbridgeable chasms on social media, and the way people form into warring groups, often with blind, irrational loyalty to the leader. Once herds are formed and logical free-thinking is out of the equation, the users become easy to manipulate. No wonder the social media have become the biggest game-changer in politics in recent times.

Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US elections despite heavy odds has been attributed to the smart use of the social media in an alleged collaboration involving the Republican think-tank, British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. In Great Britain, the Brexit referendum, according to political analysts, was heavily influenced by the social media. It has been the trend across the world in recent years. The precision of this has been such that elections are won even before people reach polling booths. The process involves intense psychological profiling of a humongous number of voters derived from information on their Twitter and Facebook interactions and nudging them to think for or against a party or candidate through targetted content. It is much like advertisers prodding people to make buying choices.

The import of the social media as influencer of political behaviour is not lost on political parties in India. The smart ones like the BJP have been into extensive use of Twitter, Facebook and other platforms for sometime now. The others are trying to catch up. Though evidence suggests that social media alone cannot make or mar the fortune of parties — it has to be backed by robust activity on the ground — we might reach there sooner than later given the sharper ways dataism is dissecting the human mind.

The amazing part in the whole process is we are unaware that we are being manipulated. Every post that lands on our mobile phones may have been designed to make us behave in a specific way or move in a specific direction. While forwarding it to acquaintances and friends we are maybe responding the exact way some invisible characters in cahoots with social media players want us to respond. While strongly believing that we are exercising free judgement, we could be following someone else’s designs in predictable ways. Technology has overtaken us without us realising it. We are turning into its slaves.

How has the new media platform changed the way we look at the world exactly? In the book ‘The People vs Tech’ Jamie Bartlett explains it this way: “Information overload and connectivity has encouraged a divisive form of emotional tribal politics, in which loyalty to the group and anger outrank reason and compromise. While partisanship is necessary in politics, too much of it is dangerous. Political leaders are evolving into the new medium of information — hence the rise of populists who promise emotional, immediate and total answers. But warring tribes of an anchorless, confused citizens is a precursor to totalitarianism.”

More information should have led people to better understanding of the world around them, it has driven them to silos instead. They are more likely to accept information that feeds their biases and identify with and defend groups that hold views similar to them. The bhakt phenomenon in India is an example. While it had been there earlier too, it is more widespread now, courtesy the social media. A typical bhakt would suspend reason and common sense, and believe everything that is fed to him/her through the social media. The same goes for groups opposed to them. Such people are easy meat for manipulation.

Tribalisation is not a new development, but a high degree of it has the ominous potential to squeeze the scope for convergence of views on important issues. With scope for negotiation and agreement out of the way, we may have highly divided societies where people are ranged against each other all the time. The trend is visible in India already.

Is there a way out? Maybe social media are their own solution. More balanced information flowing through them may make people think more and be less reactive. Monitoring content, particularly fake news and divisive content, might help too. The onus lies on big social media firms. But with revenues linked to facilitating spread of spurious information and the incredible power to influence politics, will they be willing to play ball?


(This is the fifth part of our series titled Decoding Democracy)

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