In 2011, the massive protests in Tahrir Square against Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak felt like a vision of the democratizing potential of social media: empowering the people by giving everyone a voice. Ten years later, that dream has been replaced by anxiety over whether democracy can survive the spread of social media. As confusing as this shift has been, the truth is that the crowds that came out to Tahrir Square and the mobs that descended on the United States Capitol on January 6 are two sides of the same coin.
From rampant hate speech to misinformation to human trafficking, it is easy to see why the global “techlash” is in full swing. Twitter, Facebook, and Google have done plenty to earn this opprobrium. The Destabilization Experiment, an ideas series produced in partnership between Rest of World and the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy, has noted a laundry list of mistakes, chief of which is the platforms’ organizing principle of growth at all costs, grabbing as much attention and market share as quickly as possible without bothering to think through the consequences.
In parts of the world where underlying religious or ethnic tensions created a tinderbox environment, Facebook crashed in with a blowtorch, providing the most virulent actors with unprecedented scale and reach to mobilize angry mobs. To make matters worse, the companies’ relationships with global autocrats has grown decidedly chummier over the past decade. Where social media used to be seen as a threat to dictatorships, social media use today is an asset to their consolidation of power. The platforms’ desire to stay on governments’ good side has even led to them carrying out some of the dirty work themselves, as a privatized censor of journalists and human rights activists.
While the social media giants certainly deserve some of the blame for how things have evolved over the past decade, the dark side of global connectivity has always lurked in the background of optimistic narratives around the internet’s transformational power.
Social media was never really a force for or against democracy. Rather, its impact is to challenge fundamental institutions of knowledge and governance by decentralizing speech away from traditional concentrations of power and into the hands of the public.
In the context of a repressive government like Egypt or Iran, this can be a marvelous thing. Giving everyone the ability to broadcast their views to a mass audience can help to break the information stranglehold of autocratic power structures. Leveling the communications playing field allowed thousands of dissenting views to pour out, brushing aside the calcified institutional monoliths that aimed to keep the public discourse under control.
But the collective mistake of the techno-optimists of 2011, myself included, was failing to realize that this corrosive impact would not be limited to the world’s autocracies. It turns out that the United States and other developed democracies are equally reliant on centralized institutions of knowledge and authority to guide our public discourse. These include, most obviously, specialized government agencies as well as universities, traditional media, and other hubs of expertise and authority. The democratic nature of these structures means they are more resilient than, say, Belarusian state television, but they are not immune from the destabilizing impact of social media on the information ecosystem.
In a pandemic, for example, Americans rely on specialized health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an authoritative voice to supply health information and to separate rumor from reality. Likewise, during an election, local administrators, law enforcement, and the media play an important role in informing the public of who won and lost and assuring them that the result was free, fair, and impartial.
Modern society is far, far too complicated for us to actually “do our own research” on these kinds of questions. We must rely on centers of expertise that, traditionally, will speak with the biggest and most authoritative voice on issues that are too complex or far removed for members of the public to investigate themselves. We trust these experts because they typically have their own methods of validating information for all of us: whether through peer review or a robust editorial process. Today’s crisis of democracy is what happens when that hierarchical information structure breaks down, and your crazy uncle has the same platform to promote quack medical theories as an actual expert.
So where do we go from here?
The first step is to realize that common problems require common solutions. Like our environment, the world shares a common online space. Toxicity and misinformation do not respect national borders any more than an oil spill. As a result, governments should not only refrain from actions that “pollute” the information environments of other countries but should also be keenly aware of the impacts that solutions they take forward to “clean up” the online discourse may have elsewhere, either by directly harming internet users outside of their borders or, as is commonly the case, by establishing a precedent for regulatory structures that will be implemented abusively in other parts of the world.
Words and tone matter, particularly when they emanate from the world’s leading democracies. When democratic governments portray social media as the cause of every problem, it gives license to more-repressive leaders to target them and, ultimately, their users, with disastrous consequences for freedom of expression. This is not to suggest that there should be no accountability for the very real harms and mistakes that major social media platforms are responsible for. But political leaders should think carefully about the transnational implications of what they say and do. This is more challenging than it sounds because the typical model for governments is to view problems through the lens of how their constituents are affected. But, as with climate change, the first step here is realizing that this is a global problem.
The reverse of this is also true, insofar as proposals that strengthen civic discourse — such as through healthy public service media or supporting local journalism — have the potential to carry benefits across borders. This does not mean trying to turn the clock back to the 1990s or to undo the many civic benefits that flow from widespread internet access. But with the erosion of traditional power and information structures, it is inevitable that new centers of influence will rise up. The challenges that political systems around the world are facing suggests a need to think carefully about how to improve the information space structurally, such as through solutions that combat the surveillance economy that currently drives online discourse, as well as efforts to promote information literacy, transparency, and quality journalism.
Social media platforms themselves, as the root of these changes, have an incredibly important role to play in curtailing the worst elements of their impact on the global discourse. Recent revelations that Facebook’s content moderation is overwhelmingly focused on the United States are not surprising to anyone who follows this space closely, though the scale of the differential is shocking, considering the outsized impact the platform has in places where democratic institutions are less resilient.
More than just pivoting their focus to pay more attention to these global impacts, platforms need to think carefully about their mission and place in the world. Their role is simply too important for their planning to be dominated by quarterly earnings reports and growth figures. As traditional institutions of knowledge and governance see their role in global dialogue diminished, the platforms are rising up in their place as key pillars of public discourse. Even if a full public-interest model for social media, as some have suggested, may be a bridge too far, platforms need to change their view of the world to one that accounts for the incredibly important role they play in global democracy.
While Facebook, understandably, has moved away from the earlier mantra of “Move fast and break things,” the unfortunate fact is that many things around the world are now broken as a result of social media platforms’ disruptive impact on global discourse. Fixing things is not going to be a rapid or exciting process, much less a lucrative one. But it is necessary and something that is essential for platforms to play a positive role in.