Technology and elections have gone hand in hand for a long time and it hasn’t always been a comfortable fit. When radio and television came along, so did the opportunity to put image in front of substance. Voting machines, while quicker, became known for glitches, recounts, and recounts and hanging chads.
But nothing – nothing – has confounded politics and elections the way that social media has in the last decade. Rather than putting more meaning and information into the process, platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter have front-end loaded misinformation, hackers, trolls, “fake news” and even the commercialization of privacy.
Perhaps the worst of it all is that none of us feel we can do anything about it. Facebook and Twitter especially have permitted their platforms to be used for purposes ranging from racism to the public shaming of women and yet we continue to subscribe to them. We rant and rant about their evil effects, yet we won’t disconnect, sometimes because we’re addicted to the rage, but occasionally because we believe these tools can still be used to bring us together under a new mandate for civil society.
It remains a difficult thing to have confidence in such platforms when we hear that they are buying and selling our privacy, being used by countries like Russia to undermine our collective choices, and basically watching and assisting our communities to destroy themselves while doing nothing to assist. The reason why they don’t do more to protect the public space isn’t so hard to decipher: their systems of automation and algorithms have made them billions in a decade and they wish no legal or regulatory intrusion into those profits.
The fact that these corporations promote outright lies, fake news and vicious political attacks and that same time they say they are good for democracy is deplorable. A simple search on the Internet unveils countless instances where the negative uses of social media have dumbed down the entire electoral process, permanently divided the electorate, and have laid waste to what once was a more promising democratic global landscape.
And yet these companies turn a blind eye because we continue to support them. We see the damage, personally feel the sting, and some have had lives ruined for getting involved in politics and becoming the target of online hate.
My own community of London, Ontario is going through a civic election campaign that is decidedly more divisive than most in its history. Transparency has been mostly buried under mountains of social media fake news and lies, more signs than usual have been destroyed, and personal attacks have been lobbed from all sides. Nevertheless, groups of citizens who care about this kind of stuff have reverted to the very platforms they distrust to bring integrity to politics once more. They don’t meet in secret locations but instead support those speaking out against negative attacks, secret donor lists, or outright misinformation campaigns. And gradually, perhaps too gradually, the facts of true policy and campaign are beginning to emerge that are designed to give voters the correct data to make informed decisions.
The Guardian, following the democratic disaster called Brexit, felt that lessons needed to be learned about how social media was used to blow up anything that was credible in the campaign. They concluded:
“It would be helpful if more politicians understood the ‘social’ element of social media. Then, instead of spending hundreds of thousands just getting views for their posts, they can create things that actually engage people and help shift the narrative in people’s minds. They should encourage their members and activists to share things online. Seeing posts by actual human beings, rather than a party, is way more convincing than seeing a paid-for ad.”
But in civic elections there aren’t official parties, only official positions and that gets complicated. The need for proper research and data are essential to informed choices and, in our city, such a consensus is beginning to emerge. This represents the true strength of social media that people once believed possible with its emergence years ago. But that was all ruined, not only by trolls and hackers, but by well-meaning citizens fighting for causes who nevertheless planted landmines wherever they tweeted and making it difficult to build on so much wreckage. In the past, people always had strong opinions and expressed them to family and friends. Today, however, they can tell the world in milliseconds.
We must expect divisions of opinion in every election, but what we should all hope for is that people are working from established facts and research. When politicians and organizations tell outright lies or manufactured conclusions, then there is nothing to build on once the election is over.
This is where those citizens active on social media have attempted to blow right through the fabrications and seek to strip away the fake from the factual. Without social media platforms such efforts would likely be impossible, but they have used the platforms as they were meant to be used and, in the process, are making policy come alive again.
Civil society, like political society, requires facts to function. Demean those realities, or deny them altogether, and you have broken the compact between politics and the people. Build your principles upon them and elections have a chance of being meaningful again. And for that, social media will prove essential.