Social Media Has Hijacked Our Brains and Threatens Global Democracy
The ‘social media revolution’ gave us Donald Trump and Brexit—and is making politics impossible.
The so-called social media revolution isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Sites like Twitter and Facebook exacerbate emotions like outrage and fear—and don’t help democracy flourish.
Nearly a decade ago, particularly from 2009 through about 2011, commentators crowed about something called the “Facebook revolution, the “Twitter revolution” or simply the “social media revolution.” They were often unclear about what that revolution was. But whatever it was supposed to be, it involved social media and it was happening everywhere, or at least everywhere that wasn’t the west: Iran, Moldova, Tunisia, Egypt, as well throughout the Middle East, via what was dubbed the “Arab Spring.” (Interestingly, the current Iranian protests appear to be happening despite the government reportedly blocking many social media sites and messaging apps, and without the triumphalist technology commentaries we saw in 2009.)
Because of the advent of social media, the story seemed to go, tyrants would fall and democracy would rule. Social media communications were supposed to translate into a political revolution, even though we don’t necessarily agree on what a positive revolution would look like. The process is overtly emotional: The outrage felt translates directly, thanks to the magic of social media, into a “rebellion” that becomes democratic governance.
But social media has not helped these revolutions turn into lasting democracies. Social media speaks directly to the most reactive, least reflective parts of our minds, demanding we pay attention even when our calmer selves might tell us not to. It is no surprise that this form of media is especially effective at promoting hate, white supremacy, and public humiliation.
Social media too easily bypasses the rational or at least reasonable parts of our minds, on which a democratic public sphere depends. It speaks instead to the emotional, reactive, quick-fix parts of us, that are satisfied by images and clicks that look pleasing, that feed our egos, and that make us think we are heroic. But too often these feelings come at the expense of the deep thinking, planning, and interaction that democratic politics are built from. This doesn’t mean reasoned debate can’t happen online; of course it can and does. It means that there is a strong tendency—what media and technology researchers call an “affordance”—away from dispassionate debate and toward strong emotions.
On February 11, 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, on the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek resigned, ex-Google marketing executive and activist Wael Ghonimfamously said: “A lot of this revolution started on Facebook. If you want to liberate a society, just give them the internet. If you want to have a free society, just give them internet.”
Yet in February 2016, to much less fanfare, while promoting a project called Parlio that eventually merged into Quora, Ghonim expressed reservations about his original claims. While he still believes that “social media is redistributing political power,” he now worries that “the power to develop networks, organize actions and exchange information at scale in a short period of time” can have “a drastic impact on civic life—positive or negative.”
While he sees them as separate, I am suggesting that what Ghonim calls the “never-ending popularity contest” of social media is in large part the same phenomenon that led to the failed political aspirations of the Arab Spring.
Consider for example whether the election of Donald Trump, and the United Kingdom referendum to exit the European Union (so-called “Brexit”) deserve to also be called social media revolutions. They capture in elegant form exactly what some have always believed to be the likely societal impact of social media: The replacement of other forms of political media, such as television, newspapers, and radio.
This article was originally published in Motherboard, written by David Golumbia, where you can read the entire article. View our archive of articles from Motherboard, here.