RHINO’S RAMBLINGS - Is Facebook Killing Democracy?

Robert Thomas

The question of social media’s role in the context of democracy came into focus last week as questions were raised about it's true role. 

Facebook's Head of Civic Engagement, Samid Chakrabati said "It's abhorrent to us that a nation-state used our platform to wage a cyberwar intended to divide society."

And The Guardian published a piece called "Why Facebook's News Feed Changes are Bad for Democracy"

The issue was fake news and how Facebook did nothing to combat it's spread, and when it did, it was in a way that stifled democracy. Legitimate news sites saw their independent access to Facebook and their readership destroyed, while Facebook did nothing to stop memes and trolls as set out by their mission statement.

But there is another deeper and darker side to social media and that it actually breeds apathy towards the entire political process.

Is social media not helping but hindering democracy and the need for continual change and renewal? Social media may well help spread the latest political misstep but the seeming outrage it generates quickly erodes as yet another outrage quickly emerges to take it's place.

But is this actually true? Are Facebook, Twitter and Instagram killing our democratic institutions or are they really enforcing them?

There is no doubt social media helps spread controversies like wildfire and many people are quick to respond with angst. That has been proven again and again as social media helped to bring down successive totalitarian regimes throughout the world.

But what about in developed democracies? Has social media had a negative effect on democracy?

In my best estimate, it has greatly harmed democracy and change to varying extents. We often have people who are termed to be social justice warriors using the medium to rapidly spread and focus discontent on an issue with an almost immediate response. It seems successful. But is it?

It needs to be remembered, we don't live in a Brady Bunch world. We don't take 30 minutes to identify, portray and solve complex issues for the enjoyment of the medium’s audience. Real legislative solutions, traditionally, have taken time. In order to truly effect change, citizens need to take action and become involved beyond merely hiding behind a computer screen. Change is formulated not after faux momentary virtual outrage but through citizen action; by being engaged at the real world level.

People will say that the "MJ Independent is on-line" and that "we use social media to keep people informed anout the events we are able to cover so aren't we part of the problem?" In some ways yes. But in other ways it's a definite no.

Our role on any event we cover is to provide our readers with the details. It is not our task to hold governments accountable. We simply do our best to ask the questions but it is actually up to residents to hold their elected officials and others accountable.

Social media might help spread the word on various issues but it is also up to the readers to actually be the ones to hold the powers to be accountable.

Whether you are for or against a certain issue or concern, unless you expand past your keyboard and take action nothing will really change.

There may well be a temporary solution as the public outcry seemingly forces change but at the same time it can be a temporary reactive measure. It's similar to taking a strong antacid for an ulcer attack; does it honestly do anything to fix the main underlying problem?

Certainly there will be the on-line outrage as electronic minions might immediately join your cause but after this initial blip, the entire issue dies down as the zeroes and ones which make up data are directed to the next episode. 

And just like the Brady Bunch, we quickly forget about Greg accidently horsing around and breaking Marcia’s nose but we are soon outraged that Alice reported the price of hamburger from Sam the butcher just went up two cents a pound.

Yes, in many ways social media is warping democracy to where voters are after the initial outrage in a cycle which quickly forgets and moves on. It's great to contribute in the on-line debate but without more action is the real underlying problem actually rectified?

We need to remember that Facebook is a virtual world but the realities it is seemingly addressing are in a real brick and mortar world which demands old fashioned things such as speaking out, participating, volunteering and even actually voting if you desire change and accountability.


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