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Is Social Media Destroying Our Democracy?

A recent debate saw a professor, author, technologist and data journalist argue the question.

Gabrielle Plonka 15 Apr

Gabrielle Plonka is a Langara journalism student who recently completed a practicum with The Tyee.

Is social media destroying democracy?

About 200 people gathered in the Vancouver Public Library last week to watch four people — a professor, an author, a technologist and a data journalist — argue the question as part of SFU’s Public Square annual Community Summit.

With the CBC’s Stephen Quinn moderating, political science professor Colin Bennett and Too Dumb for Democracy? author David Moscrop argued that yes, democracy is crumbling, and our pervasive social media platforms are to blame.

Technologist and community organizer Nasma Ahmed and the Discourse data journalist Francesca Fionda argued that social media is a forum for open discussion and thus a fundamental part of democracy.

Each debater presented opening and closing arguments and answered questions from the audience and Quinn. The winning side was decided by an audience vote. Another vote was conducted before the debate to indicate how many minds were changed.

It was close race, with Bennett and Moscrop winning the popular vote by 47 per cent to 40 per cent (13 per cent were undecided). However, Ahmed and Fionda changed the most minds, as only 20 per cent of the audience had initially supported their position.

Here’s what people heard.

Colin Bennett: Healthy democracy and social media surveillance can’t co-exist

“I do not have a Facebook account, but I am on Facebook, without my knowledge and consent,” Colin Bennett said in his opening remarks, pointing out that he cannot control what others post about him on the platform. “I am on Facebook, even though I don’t want to be.”

Facebook’s business model depends on collecting the personal information of its users, one reason Bennett doesn’t use the platform.

There are endless ways that your data is being mined on a regular basis, Bennett said, often in ways that you don’t expect. This month, The Tyee revealed the RCMP is monitoring social media and collecting data on users and TransLink collects personal information on riders.

“The way that prominent social media platform companies, particularly Facebook, are currently operating and are financed is inherently undemocratic,” he said. “Organizations should not be tracking us without our knowledge and consent unless there are reasons to do so in the public interest.”

The right to personal privacy is a “cornerstone of democracy,” Bennett said. In the age of social media, corporations have assumed a huge amount of power with little regulation, thanks in part to the millions of dollars social media companies spend lobbying against privacy laws worldwide.

“Let’s put to bed straight away the argument that people do not care about their privacy. Yes, they do,” Bennett said. “We need privacy for all kinds of different reasons. It helps us be and become healthy human beings.”

The keys to impeding the data economy, Bennett says, are to demand increased regulation, privacy laws and an end to corporate monopolies. Until that happens, our democracy will continue to trend in a “downward direction.”

David Moscrop: We’re mean online, and it’s not our fault

Why should people be persuaded that social media is destroying democracy, Moscrop asked?

“The easiest way to convince you would be to show you my Twitter mentions,” he said. “Then we could just call it a night and get a drink. But that wouldn’t be very sporting.”

The line gets a laugh, but Moscrop is ready with examples, reading out excerpts from his hate mail collection. “David Moscrop, this is the most pathetic, desperate, piece-of-junk writing I’ve ever read in Canada,” he reads. “I hope you die.”

“The space is so polluted, even good faith efforts end up looking like this,” he said.

Moscrop argued that the vast amount of low-quality discourse cluttering social media, from the worst extremist recruiting to the most mundane “garden-variety trolls” drown out any attempts at productive discourse. He blames “bad-faith actors,” some of whom are foreign forces, using inflammatory comments to provoke and infuriate users and cause toxic discourse.

Moscrop said it isn’t our fault that we act this way on social media.

Our brains simply aren’t well-adapted to the social media environment, he says. Citing Daniel Levitin’s book The Organized Mind, Moscrop said that people in 2011 consumed five times more information in a day than they did in 1986. There is simply more information floating around on the Internet than we are able to process.

“The speed and the volume of information that’s coming at us is too much, it overwhelms us, it exhausts us,” he said.

Our democracy is delicate, Moscrop says. It’s difficult to make good decisions inside of it, and the murky waters of social media only undermine our ability to do that.

Nasma Ahmed: The problem isn’t social media

“Democracy is always in a state of crisis,” Ahmed said. “We have seen propaganda over the course of history, and social media currently is one of the tools that we use to spread misinformation.”

Ahmed said that toxic discourse and misinformation have always existed. In 1960, Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas fought for Medicare using posters and radio campaigns. More recently, a citizen-led campaign against sex education in Ontario used pamphlets to spread false information.

The real threat to democracy is the distribution of wealth and power, she said. The top one per cent of the population has an increasing share of total wealth and higher income growth than the rest, Ahmed said.

“That is one of the core issues when we’re thinking about the destruction of democracy, how we connect with our communities, how we’re able to participate in representational policy. In many cases we use social media as a way of avoiding the problem.”

Ahmed argued that social media provides a valuable tool to highlight underreported stories and give a voice to activists who are “keeping watch of what’s happening.”

Ahmed said that while social media might spread disinformation, it also plays a role in spreading real and important stories.

“I think it’s creating a more democratic process in how you engage in discourse.”

Francesca Fionda: Diving into the toxic swamp of social media with an open mind

“I’ve been surprised with the comments section a few times,” said Fionda, adding that part of her job at the Discourse is to wade through feedback on the website. “We have a policy where we are generous with our assumptions.”

She tries to engage in productive discussion before she classifies a commenter as aggressive or inflammatory.

“When you are generous with your assumptions, you get in there, and you find out that a lot of people are just trying to have a discussion and learn. When we go into these spaces with more of an open mind, I think we would be a lot more surprised.”

There are a lot of variables when you are participating in social media and online debate, and time and place matters, Fionda says.

Sometimes, we may not have the energy to engage patiently, and that’s OK.

“I respond... in the morning, when I’m a little more fresh than in the evening when I’m tired,” she said. “Pick your timing.”

Maintaining a polite discourse can also be more difficult when there is a larger audience watching your conversation.

“If you’re about to have a conversation in a comments section on BuzzFeed and it has 2,000 comments, and you’re going down that rabbit hole, that might be a little bit harder, I would say.”

Ultimately, Fionda believes that social media is an important tool for democracy, for social connection and for human rights movements, pointing out that Black Lives Matter and MeToo both gained major traction because they went viral on social media.

The key to improving the space, she said, is education.

“We need to equip people with ways to fact check and think critically about information and look beyond the first thing that crosses your feet,” she said. “We haven’t learned how to go beyond our own spaces and look for that information.”  [Tyee]

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