Social media’s challenge to democracy


I’ve been involved in politics for the better part of a lifetime, and have spoken at a lot of public meetings over the years. There’s one question, I think, that I’ve heard more than any other: “If I want to be an informed citizen, which sources of information should I consult?”

For many years, I had a set answer for this. Read one or more of the respected national news sources, I’d respond: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Financial Times, The Economist, etc. I’m not sure how good that answer was at the time, but I know for certain it would be woefully inadequate now. Younger people, in particular, get far more of their information from social media than from traditional news sources.

The Internet and social media have upended our expectations of what it means to be well informed. Platforms and websites that take advantage of online and mobile connectivity are like a firehose, providing enormous quantities of information, opinion, news, statements, videos, images, analysis, charts, graphs — all of it instantly available. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other platforms have become the way many of our citizens communicate. They have become a force for mobilizing large groups of people to apply political pressure on short notice.

The question is what impact does this have on the public dialogue, and on representative democracy?

Clearly, these are powerful tools. As the rise of the Tea Party and the alarm over price increases for the EpiPen demonstrate, they can galvanize large, energetic groups of people who oppose a specific target. They make more information quickly available from more sources. They make it possible for users to do their own fact-checking (I can tell you, it’s quite intimidating as a speaker to watch members of the audience checking up on what you just said).

They allow people to get into the action and take part in political dialogue. They give citizens multiple ways to engage the attention and interest of policy makers — and give policy makers multiple ways to gauge public opinion and seek to understand the interests and needs of constituents. They’ve brought new groups into the public dialogue that were not there before, adding fresh voices to the process and broadening our understanding of what it means to be American.

But if information has become more ubiquitous and powerful, so has misinformation. It spreads rapidly, passed along from user to user with no check. Posts tend to have no room for nuance; arguments can be explosive and arguers aggressive; drama and hysteria fuel polarization; special interests can’t help but take advantage of the context-free nature of social media.

All of this makes it far more difficult for policy makers to sift through everything coming their way on any given topic. If a significant portion of the information that’s available consists of misleading graphs, false facts, misstatements, and outright lies, the process of arriving at good policy becomes fragile and laden with traps.

This is why the sheer quantity of information bestowed on us by social media does not necessarily improve the quality of public dialogue. It does not always help citizens make good choices.

And that’s really the key question: Does the ubiquity of information available through social media really help citizens understand complex issues, weigh competing arguments, and reach discriminating judgments about politics?

Or does it overwhelm them with bursts of information that is so mixed as to quality that people simply throw up their hands — or, worse, charge full-tilt ahead based on a false understanding of reality?

The answer, of course, is that it’s a mixed bag. The jury is still out on whether we’re becoming better citizens because we have more information and opinion at our fingertips. Certainly, the information world we live in today is putting more stress on individual voters to make discriminating choices and on our representative democracy, which rests on institutions that were designed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Our political process has proved resilient over centuries, and has served us well. But social media pose a powerful challenge. They’ve brought great gifts and equally great risks, and we’d be prudent to be cautious.

By Lee H. Hamilton

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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