Agents or victims

The New Yorker recently published an essay asking how bad social media is for democracy. It is a thoughtful text, looking at two different perspectives and suggesting that the real picture is, well, complex. The simplest statement of the hypothesis would look something like this:

(I) Social media is eroding democracy

The article notes, not surprisingly, that this statement is meaningless and ill-defined. But it also notes that there seems to be evidence that suggest that social media has a negative effect on democracies in a number of different aspects – albeit it in more narrow ways. The social science studies can support many individual statements of the form:

(II) This one aspect a of social media has a negative effect on this one aspect b of democracy.

But the devil lies in the causality. Is social media generating these effects or is it amplifying them? Again, the article strikes an interesting balance between the different claims. And helpfully links to a collaborative literature review.

One reason we seem to like hypotheses like this is that they suggest a simple fix: fix social media platforms and democracy will be just fine again. And this is also where this line of reasoning starts to look deeply problematic, since it seems to argue a much more foundational hypothesis:

(III) Democracy is dependent on the kinds of media present in it and the regulation of that media.

Is (III) true? It seems plausible somehow, but can it really be true? If it was we would just need to fix media and democracy would follow – right? Or are we saying that it is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for democracy to thrive that we have properly regulated media platforms?

There is an alternative hypothesis here that is equally tricky:

(IV) Democracy depends on the civic engagement of citizens.

This is the counter to the “social media made me do it”-slogan: you are responsible for your actions. It all comes back to the question of how gullible we are and how easy to manipulate we are. If we take the view that people are gullible and easy to manipulate, however, can we then really believe in democracy where those same people are meant to govern the state? If we do we have to posit that there is such a thing as a state in which gullible and easily manipulated people make only wise decisions, and we can get to that state through regulating media.

That seems a tall order.

The other thing about this is that the solution space looks very different for (III) and (IV). If we believe that it is the engagement of citizens and their commitment to democratic value that matters, then our challenge is harder in the sense that we have to think about how to become citizens again, and how to encourage others to also commit to basic democratic values. If we believe that it is about the media, then we can just regulate the media and hope for the best.

There are, of course, hybrid versions of all hypotheses here. We can believe we need to become citizens again, but that the noise produced by social media makes that harder. We can believe social media as currently set up stops us from becoming citizens, and wish for a kind of social media pause while we rebuild the citizenry of modern democracy. But at the end of the day when we ask about the root cause, when we ask the five why’s, we do get back to the individual responsibility that each and everyone of us has to our democracies.

And this is not surprising – because most political analyses end up in a question about human nature. If we believe we are responsible for our own actions we will end up with a different politics than if we believe that we are mere pawns in the hands of structure and society.

This is not so much a question of right / left as it is a question of agent / victim.

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