Today the social media has become a large part of our democratic structure. It serves as the battleground for our elections, brings us closer to our leaders and also provides us the right to free speech in a sense which was inaccessible to our forefathers. The biggest strength of the social media is that anyone is allowed to say anything. But, that has also turned out to be its biggest weakness.

This aspect of social media has given people the opportunity to be able to speak without the burden of factual accuracy, which has led to the rise of fake news. “These social media websites have algorithmic news feeds which are designed to bring you information that you’re more likely to tap the “like” button on. The basic idea being simply to understand what type of content you liked and show you more of it, which sounds innocent enough.” But, if you put fake news into that picture, it can lead to the creation of an alternate reality altogether, meaning that the general populous would be deprived of essential facts, thus, depriving them of a shared sense of reality. This implies, that a political party or for that matter any individual can create a more convenient truth for his own benefit. For example, the doctored video of the JNU protests that did rounds on social media in early 2016 or the Russian intervention in 2016 US presidential elections.

 

Another problem, as Harvard Law School Professor Cass R. Sunstein says, is that those same algorithms create what’s called polarization, or an information cocoon. Polarization refers to the idea that, when someone is exposed to only information that supports their own beliefs, those beliefs tend to push more towards the extremes. As we have seen has happened today, with the rise of extremism and intolerance. People are being labeled anti-national, urban Naxals, libtards and what not, only for having a differing opinion of how things should be.

Whenever these people express differing opinions, there are certain people who abuse them, threaten them and try to silence them; these are the “Trolls”. Trolls work as an online mob who misuse relative anonymity in social media to suppress any opinion or thought while at the same time threatening others who wish to express their views. Trolls, today, have become a political tool to suppress dissent and propagate intolerance. (If you need proof just read the comment section of any post by Ravish Kumar or any other so-called “Urban Naxal”) but, social media has indeed had a positive impact on democracy. It has provided a voice to the commoners, to the exploited and the persecuted. Moreover, it has been helping us in bringing our leaders closer to us and, if one has the time and ability to differentiate between real and fake, in obtaining a sense of the ground reality. Yet, it’s the biggest contribution has been its ability to create awareness and dialogue. Various social stigmas, conflicts, and issues have been challenged on social media in the most simplistic and often, funniest of ways. Be it the widely successful ALS ice bucket challenge or the awareness about the LGBT issues.

 

Today, an 18th-century ideology is being practiced on a platform younger than Backstreet Boys. Thus, conflicts are bound to happen due to the obvious lags and slow speed of evolution. Social media is changing democracy drastically, for better or for worse, no one can tell. Only the next few years will show us whether democracy evolves and overcomes these challenges or declines and degrades into something ugly and dark.

Mayank Advani

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