«Without decent information systems, politeness and diplomacy, societies settle their disputes by making use of coercion »: The Economist has not beaten about the bush and has blamed social media, especially Facebook, for “spreading poison, sadness and resentment”, corroding voters’ opinions, making the political debate harsher and harsher everywhere, from Spain to South Africa (Do social media threaten democracy?). Read it in Italian.
Such gloom conclusion is based on actual data and specific figures: from January 2015 and August 2017, i.e. before, during and after the elections which allowed Donald Trump to sit in the oval room of the White House, 36.746 Twitter accounts providing misleading information originate in Russia were identified along with 1.108 YouTube video of the same origin and topic. About 62 million Facebook accounts are fake and allegedly run by Russian propaganda services; and this resulted in the fact that, in the above mentioned period, about 146 million people were exposed to the posts created to spread fake news (Facebook reveals: there are 270 million fake or copied accounts).
Consequently, although in the past social networks declared to be the promoters of an enlightened politics, which could support people who wanted to get to know real facts and build a prejudice free and corruption free society, today they have turned out to be “a mechanism used to attract and manipulate people’s attention”. Basically, a real danger similar to the one forecast by Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher, who argued that social media could unsettled authoritarian countries but, at the same time, have the potential to erode the public sphere of our democracies, which used to be the realm of political debate.
But why are social media so much more dangerous than TV and the radio? Users’ profiling systems. According to The Economist we cannot blame social network for the serious financial crisis of 2007 and the consequent gap between the rich and the poor. However, they are responsible for fomenting rage and a general culture of contempt.
Unlike the radio and TV, social media derive their power – whose extent has still not been fully understood, in my opinion – from their knowledge of their users, their habits, tastes, what they love watching, when and how. Which implies an ability to forecast their (re)actions, and therefore, the possibility to tease them and affect them though contents, images and so on. People are sucked in a vortex of gossips and disdain, which discredit the compromises which are critical to democracy, while promoting the most extreme positions which make the debate harsher and harsher. In Myanmar, where Facebook is the main source of new for most people, the social network has increased the hate towards the Rohingya, who ended up being the victims of ethnic cleansing.
Is everything lost then? Not yet: a recent survey has shown that only 37% of Americans blindly believe what they read on social media, less than half the percentage of people who believe in newspapers and magazines. And such percentages show a decreasing trend. In the meantime, however, we’d better do something. The most logical choice would be forcing social media (also by law) to name their sources and to adapt their algorithms to tackle click baiting and misinformation. In other words, hitting their wallet is always the most effective solution!
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