Is social networking incommensurate with [Big “D”] Democracy?
By Desiree L. DePriest, Purdue University Global
Researchers, across many disciplines, are building a substantive amount of data on the influence social networks have on political self-expression, information seeking and real-world voting behavior across millions of people. In 2010, 61 million Facebook users were measurably influenced during the U.S. congressional elections (Bond, et al., 2012). The messages not only micro-targeted a defined group of users but subsequently influenced their friends, and friends of friends.
Figure 1. Marking a Ballot (by ulleo on Pixabay)
Microtargeting for influence
Direct effects of social networks were also validated during the U.S. Presidential Election in 2012. In this study, the total effect on friends was more significant than the direct effect. This suggests that receiving messages or retweets from a friend directly increases and influences offline behaviors, such as voting (Jones, et al., 2017).
Polarization among social circles is not a new phenomenon. Prior to the Internet, there were magazines, television, newspapers, and other media, which people found themselves attracted to, and potentially exploited by, to sell a product. Polarization also occurred in the “…slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…” cited in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, denoting bad situations or bullies that attack people, as well as the fortune that comes people’s way in life, including love. Traditionally, civil Democracies encourage robust debates based on the higher standards of exchanging credible information. This information has its validity in peer-review, and critically analyzed research. It does not exclude trends or psychic phenomena, or even manufacturer press releases, if authentically presented, and able to produce similar results in other environments. This is what evolved the sciences, i.e., social or political, medical or legal, psychological or physiological. It is only with the onslaught of social networking that the legitimacy of an argument is less important than its multiplier, or how often it is shoved in the users’ retweets and posts (Cook, et al., 2014). Therefore, we are talking about a new, social polarization in this article; one that rewards repetition and harm as a commodity for profit more than the ‘civil behavior’ that undergirds Democratic ideals.
Figure 2. Free and Fair Elections (by felipeblasco on Pixabay)
For example, alleging vaccines make humans magnetic is easy enough to (dis)prove empirically. However, without research criteria or verifiable data, it lacks the substantive baselines for civil debate. The same logic to discern validity would follow for each conspiracy, but for, each participant is being behavior modified by the speed and repetitiveness of chaotic bombardments. These repetitive cues are the result of self-generating neural networks generating competitive learning algorithms that cluster, classify, predict or recognize user patterns (Inoue, H. & Narihisa, H. (2003). It is important to distinguish between supervised learning neural networks and self-generating neural networks, in terms of learning parameters constructed from instances/attributes over time, and their increased efficiency regardless of noisy signals. Self-learning neural networks are being discussed in this article because they are automated to real-world applications. They have a millisecond speed advantage over most other learning methods, and make it possible to update the network without major redundancy during training.
Put simply, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others, can run fully automated applications based on relatively simple self-generating algorithms. Congress does not work that fast, and without computer science training, continue to ignore the probable cause-and-effect to challenges in Democracy. The owners of the tech companies may not be motivated to give a straight answer to Congress within those once considered hallowed chambers. Additionally, it is likely that the owners, being visionaries not technicians, genuinely do not specifically know how the machinery works versus the lofty brow attributed to these insufficiently taxed zealots of the billions.
Weakening of civil society? Democratic processes?
Nevertheless, civil society is finding itself more aggressive, more polarized, and less Democratic. Why? The human brain is formed to make sense out of its experiences. According to Forbes magazine (2021), on average Americans spent more than 1300 hours on social media in 2020, being led by a self-generating algorithm down an Alice in Wonderland ‘rabbit hole.’ Users can easily click on a weight loss ad only to be led to a plethora of conspiracy theories triggering anti-vax worst fears. The sensationalism of these displays can be quite engaging and enraging, especially when the algorithms do their job correctly. Users who do not understand they are being led, preferring to think their searches or clicks are the logical output of cognitive curiosity, do not have a clue about the myriad classifications the search engine has already aligned to their activity. The mass majority of users belonging to these communities are not aware of who actually erected the groups but are comforted by the “us” versus “them” allegiances. They are made to feel enlightened or given a special role by the machine language ‘Mad Hatters.’
The liberty of the democratic process, the freedom of choice without discord or danger, do not exist in media environment where a shared enemy is required and the ‘other’ demonized. Users cannot access a site one day and expect not to see the persuasion and seduction of that type of site going forward. Incessant social media sites depend on the lack of discipline exerted by the users, taking random trips on the Internet that can lead to fringe groups espousing reptilian forms of thinking. Communities are formed that eventually want to meet up in physical spaces and fight for an aggressive cause. Concepts in opposition to democratic liberty and freedom for others are far too frequently presented through the tainted lens of victimization. It may also be presented as peaceful protest with arsenals, just in case. Particularly vulnerable are younger and older people who either have not developed skills of discernment, are lonely or in cognitive decline. However, these demographics are becoming harder and harder to distinguish because the entire democratic process is currently polarized. Frustration or anger about an unfulfilling job or relationship, and other unsatisfied needs, can easily explode on a platform where a user can project anything they want without culpability (Olaniran & Williams, 2020).
What about facts?
There is something lost in democracy if the new normal declares that facts are futile. If public health, involving hegemonic unity to protect the society writ large, becomes civil chaos at school board meetings or is politicized in the legislative process, then debate of the facts is futile. If a citizens’ right to equal justice under the law, constitutional and democratic rights to vote, or to acquire historical knowledge are no longer respected or adhered to, then there are no agreed upon baselines to unite a society. These are as much shared ideals as they are what America once aspired to represent in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag: “…one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Many of those who recognize this disintegration of civil society have become disenchanted by dialogs with those who are not interested in robust, logical debate. There is also a growing distrust in the biased nature of media, the polarity and delays in government, and a pandemic that will not go away. In the absence of these voices, misinformation and disinformation dominates the mainstream dialogs, destroying democracy with a series of cuts, insults, and threats of violence. The safe harbors of the past such as religion, have also been infiltrated through integrating Christian beliefs with racism, anti-Semitism, and a fear of ‘replacement.’ The most paradoxical horror is when the religious thoughts are simultaneously being blended with the spreading of death threats, violence, and chaos. What would Jesus do?
The U.S. Constitution is certainly not a religious document. It is designed, however, to be an ideal of equity, liberty, and justice. It is societies’ ambition to have confidence and respect for our shared purpose. Disagreements and robust debates are a normal aspect of our shared Democracy but threatening or exerting fear and violence against our fellows is not. In our society, these behaviors used to be considered legally actionable violations in a polite society. Civil procedure and constitutional law used to be guiding posts to maintaining a civil society. It still should be. When laws appear to be inequitable, we would organize to change them, not storm the U.S. Capitol, attempt to kidnap state officials, or officials posting memes of murder and lies.
Regulation of the Internet
However, we are yet to expand existing laws to include regulation of the Internet. There is no definitive punishment or restitution for online threats or destructive trolling, no explicit requirement for social networks to remove dangerous content within 24 hours or prohibiting memes showing violence or the killing of another human being. A civil democracy would not allow these assaults on liberty or the denial of a citizen to feel safe within their own domicile.
Republican or Democrat affiliation is less about belief systems and more about having a formal process for civil debate. Throughout history, each party has held the same positions the other party holds today. Political parties are simply a binary looking for a compromise. The peaceful transfer of power regardless of what party won or lost an election is an example of former processes for civility, Unfortunately, this process of debate has deteriorated into a nationwide tribal war to destroy an opponent versus debating towards common policies for the majority of American citizens. Some of these warriors have compromises with known enemy states of the U.S., and market excessive personal attacks on the opponent’s family, including children. It could be argued that social media is the driver of these behavioral changes as congress and senators use shock doctrine for everything, campaigning through to rallies and fundraisers.
Social media as non-democratic
Figure 3. Smartphone and Social Media Apps (by geralt on Pixabay)
Social media, in its current implementation, is a non-democratic environment that demands the most visceral and continuous engagement. Even the lesser of evils, LinkedIn for example, consistently sends notifications and reminders to join in its activities, a large percentage of messages being marketeers. It is not simply a choice of preference; Democracy accepts that pornography is displeasing but legal for adults. It is about [big-D] Democracy that affords American’s privileges and opportunities but most importantly, a civil way to resolve conflicts. Democracy also has mechanisms to flush out truth from falsehood, and was once the leader in science, technology, engineering, and math. Media used to have a responsibility to validate information and sources as credible.
Placing significant regulations on social networks and their negative, cognitive effects on the minds of citizens is more than past due. Without hegemonic confidence in Democracy, our society is losing its thread. Democracy is not perfect; it will take time to restore the national pride in our Constitution, common laws, and polite societal norms. But, after several decades of allowing social media to run amuck, with no indication that regulations are coming, we will miss civil society when it’s gone.
Americans Spent On Average More Than 1,300 Hours On Social Media Last Year. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2021/06/24/americans-spent-more-than-1300-hours-on-social-media/?sh=16f671612547
Bond, R. M., Fariss, C. J., Jones, J. J., Kramer, A. D., Marlow, C., Settle, J. E., & Fowler, J. H. (2012). A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization. Nature, 489(7415), 295–298. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11421.
Cook DM, Waugh B, Abdipanah M, Hashemi O, Rahman SA. Twitter deception and influence: Issues of identity, slacktivism, and puppetry. Journal of Information Warfare. 2014;13(1):58–71.
Inoue, H. and Narihisa, H. (2003). Efficiency of Self-Generating Neural Networks Applied to Pattern Recognition. Mathematical and Computer Modelling 38 (2003) 122501232. Elsevier.
Jones, J. J., Bond, R. M., Bakshy, E., Eckles, D., & Fowler, J. H. (2017). Social influence and political mobilization: Further evidence from a randomized experiment in the 2012 U.S. presidential election. PloS one, 12(4), e0173851. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0173851.
Olaniran, B., & Williams, I. (2020). Social Media Effects: Hijacking Democracy and Civility in Civic Engagement. Platforms, Protests, and the Challenge of Networked Democracy, 77–94. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-36525-7_5
About the Author
Desiree L. DePriest has been an IT/AI business intelligence professor at Purdue University Global for 16 years. Desiree’s expertise is in business intelligent information systems and artificial intelligence in business environments. She holds a Ph.D., in Management & Organization with emphasis in Information Technology, along with two master’s degrees (Telecom and IS respectively). Desiree has a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and certificate in ABA and I-O psychology which greatly assist her work in the various areas of business intelligence, industrial and organizational motivation, and attitudes. She is the Vice-chair of the Institutional Review Board at Purdue Global and attended UMKC Law School.
Desiree developed and directs the Purdue Global Internship Program – Technology (PGIP-T) which is an internship for IT and business students wanting real world experience and certificates prior to graduation. She also created the Graduate Information Technology Association (GITA) for active and alumni IT/Business students and serves as Faculty Advisor. Desiree has won the “Best Practices” award for her work in the internship from the American Association of Adult Continuing Education (AAACE). She also received Honorable Mention for the Purdue University Global Accomplished Learners Award for implementing ways to increase graduation rates, student satisfaction, retention, employment, and learning. Her publications include research in persuasive and predictive analytics, artificial intelligence and algorithms in decision support, and pattern recognition. Other intellectual contributions include The Intentionality of Systemic Racism and Perpetual Trauma – The Effects of Poison-Privilege (book chapter, 2020). Desiree’s recently completed a German textbook in Intercultural Management (2020). interests continually expand to neural correlates of consciousness (NCC), cognitive computing (CC) and quantum teaming (QT). Quantum Teaming© is a quality management methodology with particular focus on virtual team environments and is the intellectual property of Dr. DePriest. Desiree presents throughout the year at conferences in these areas and is an active member of several professional organizations.
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