Social Media and the Degeneration of the Democratic Process

Men (people) are rarely aware of the real reasons which motivate their actions.

-Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928.

Modern democracy finds itself inseparably intertwined with social media, solely due to the ubiquity of the technology itself. In early 2003, tech entrepreneurs Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe founded MySpace, one of the first popular social media networks. MySpace, while rudimentary in hindsight, had many features that are common to contemporary social media platforms. Perhaps the most interesting feature of MySpace was the fact that it gave users the ability to select their top eight friends out of their entire friends list, leading to rivalries and pointed questions. These early features coalesced and evolved into the features and social networks we see today, like Instagram and Snapchat. These social media networks have far more advanced algorithms and features. In the case of Instagram, it algorithmically provides a custom-tailored experience for every user – or, in other words, tells them exactly what they want to hear. According to Pew Research Center data found here, 5% of American adults claimed to use social media in 2005, during the MySpace era. Now, that number is 72%. This begs the question – what is the relationship between this prevalence and the health of American democracy?

One of the most important statistics provided by Pew is age-based in nature, demonstrating that in 2021, 84% of 18-29 year olds self-reported using at least one social media website. Given this data, it’s clear that social media must have at least some small influence on the opinions of younger voters. The opinions of younger voters matter more than any other age group, because they will be voting the longest out of any demographic. Of the current social media networks, Facebook and Instagram are generally the most popular. Both Facebook and Instagram are offered by Meta.

Meta is one of the largest technology companies in the world, primarily building their fortune from Facebook. According to the company’s about section found here, one of their primary principles is to make technology accessible to everyone, with an ad-based business model to preserve the free use of their services. This is a major issue, due to the pervasiveness and subject width of modern advertising. According to, super PACs are a relatively new type of committee that arose following v. Federal Election Commission in July 2010, following a related more famous decision called Citizens United in January of the same year. These decisions allowed super PACs to form, which take unlimited sums of money from any source (including corporations) and spend it as they desire for or against political candidates.

Now for the fun part. According to Politico, for example, Priorities USA just launched another six figure digital advertising campaign as part of it’s $75 million dollar total budget targeting voters in key battleground states. This is a problem because the algorithmic, ubiquitous, and ad-based nature of social media platforms means that the average person is likely going to be exposed to political ads daily, often reinforcing their political opinions. De Gruyter provides some more examples of the same. Author Young Mie Kim states: “In the final weeks of the election, Trump’s digital team narrowly targeted certain voters from Clinton’s support base and delivered negative appeals via Facebook ads, silently shattering Clinton’s coalition (Green and Issenberg, 2016). “This is how we won the election,” said Brad Pascale, former digital director of the Trump campaign.” This is, all of course, without even beginning to scratch the surface of the complexity or cacophonous nature of these algorithms.

Mozilla provides a good summary of the mechanisms that drive these algorithms. Even without any reading, some easy experiments are all it takes to demonstrate how effective these algorithms really are. For most people, the splash page of YouTube will be filled with videos that are generally directly related to what they’ve watched before. Instagram ads will be of a specific category and nature – click on one t-shirt brand, and suddenly you’d think you’re a T-shirt collector. Unfortunately, this relationship transcends product and interest marketing and transfers into politics.

Pew Research Center provides pertinent data on the subject here. Pew data shows that the political polarization between the two major sides in American politics has been growing since 1994, with a more significant increase after 2004. This data was measured using a 10-question quiz, viewable in Appendix A found here. This coincides with the increase in prevalence of social media, and we are unfortunately still in the nascent period of social media. It is also important to note that this data was collected before the Trump election, often believed to be the most polarizing election in recent history. Pew also notes that people that are both consistently conservative and consistently liberal have a higher desire to live in an ideological echo chamber. This is extremely worrisome because of the two-party nature of our democracy, with many solutions requiring bipartisan cooperation. Additionally, to say that all Democratic positions or all Republican positions are correct is almost assuredly a very poor heuristic.

Even “independents” tend to have a skew. According to more Pew data found here and here, around 81% of independents tend to lean towards the Republican or Democratic parties, with only 7% of Americans declining to lean toward a party. Divisions also exist within parties, for example, the commonly cited evangelical right, described as “Faith and Flag Conservatives” by Pew. With this massive political polarization, social media’s algorithmic nature is even more terrifying – considering that the average person will likely only be exposed to things they have already historically agreed with on the most ubiquitous internet platforms, this polarization only stands to continue to grow and threaten bipartisan initiatives even further.

It’s clear that social media needs some type of regulation or possibly anti-trust action for the sake of democracy. Regulation could come in the form of regulating the type and amount of ads that could be shown on platforms, or requiring the restructuring of algorithms to minimize the echo chamber effect. Considering the importance of democracy, and it’s status as the absolute best political system for the individual and citizen, along with it’s vaunted history as the political structure of the free world, any threat to it’s health must be managed and corrected for as soon as possible.

Further Reading: Mozilla’s 2019 Internet Health Report

The Challenge of Democracy in the Digital Era (by Mozilla)

Edward Bernays | American publicist | Britannica

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