Home >Opinion >Columns >The power of social media and its implications for democracy

Every four years, the world is treated to a grand spectacle of the US presidential election. The one this year has had us riveted to our TV screens, newspapers and, above all, to social media feeds. This has been the story of this past week, as we saw a new victor emerge, but with the loser still claiming victory. The spectacle promises to extend over the next few weeks, and social media will continue to heave with all the fuss and drama accompanying it.

The 2016 election that crowned Donald Trump was notable for many reasons—a non-establishment president, a whiff of Russia and other nations influencing the election, and the part that technology, especially social media, played in his win. In fact, many think-tanks and publications have claimed that Trump was the first man to be made president by social media alone. While there is no denying that his campaign team used social platforms much more effectively than his opponent, there was also a strong whiff of scandal accompanying the whole process. That whiff turned into a gagging stench after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. It is a bit ironical to write about this sitting in Cambridge, but the eponymous company collected the personal data of Facebook users’ friends via its Open Graph platform, administered a series of questions to map the psychological profile of users, and perfected sharply-targeted techniques to sway undecided voters in favour of Trump and get even committed Democrats to not vote that day. The fact that the exercise had Republican and deeply conservative links, and strong evidence of a Russian connection, revealed how a hostile foreign power could use legitimate social media tools to help elect an American president.

The fear that the same could happen in 2020 has been very real. Three quarters of all Americans of voting age use social media, and nearly 70% are on Facebook. The President has ruled through a social media platform, Twitter, and his 87 million followers. Conspiracy groups like QAnon have used YouTube effectively to cook up outlandish plots threatening secession and internal strife. Even Mark Zuckerberg, who refused to believe that his creation could be responsible for the 2016 result, said he was “worried". On Facebook he wrote: “With our nation so divided and election results potentially taking days or even weeks to be finalised, there could be an increased risk of civil unrest across the country." The pro-tech magazine Wired declared that social media outlets should voluntarily go “dark" or silent over the election.

Large social media platforms have certainly taken some steps to stem the rot. Facebook declared an outright ban on intimidating content, set up a voter information centre with posts from verified election authorities, didn’t have election ads on election day, labelled false and misleading posts as such, etc. Twitter’s gone step further. Besides its election hub, it flags tweets it considers false. It has put a “public interest notice" on multiple Trump tweets and doesn’t allow retweets of such posts. YouTube and TikTok have taken similar measures. These actions barely scratch the surface, but have had a positive effect.

However, this election has thrown up another interesting and potentially explosive situation. The US does not have a constitutional election management body like, say, the Election Commission in India (EC). So, while the EC declares the winner in India, in the US the national media performs this role. The bigger networks like CNN, Fox, NBC traditionally “call" US elections, and the loser is supposed to heed the call and gracefully concede. While the first part has been done, Trump refuses to do the second. And, as he fights the verdict, he is expected to use two potent weapons: his lawyers and, again, social media. He does not have much of a chance, legally. However, with his 87 million followers, he can cause great damage socially. While the platforms have pledged not to allow this, he has gone right ahead and declared victory on Twitter. The platform has labelled his tweets as misleading, and so a new battle has begun. In 2016, it was about influencing the election; in 2020, it has progressed to declaring a winner.

This makes for interesting speculation. Today, it is traditional media that calls each state election and declares the winner; tomorrow, as social media becomes bigger and more powerful than traditional outlets, will Facebook and Twitter start declaring the next president? And, if every citizen of a country is also on social media, might that begin to be seen as a new form and definition of democracy?

Jaspreet Bindra is the author of ‘The Tech Whisperer’, and founder of Digital Matters

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