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PILLAI: Social media can be champion or destroyer of democracy

Social media has the capacity to unite and inform the masses, yet is increasingly divisive and detrimental to democracy. – Photo by Wikimedia.org

When Facebook started gaining popularity, users probably did not expect the site to become a magnet for conspiracy theories and plots to subvert the U.S. government. Then again, we should have been more suspicious of a platform whose predecessor was FaceMash, a misogynistic site that allowed Harvard students to rate their peers based on appearance. 

We have seen Facebook’s quirky history and fuzzy mission statement as signs that social media is not supposed to be taken too seriously. But events ranging from the massive disinformation campaigns over the past few elections to the recent GameStop coup on Reddit prove that social media can either be a champion or a destroyer of democracy.

In theory, platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube can expose users to diverse perspectives and inspire empathy. On the other hand, people can flock to groups with like-minded individuals and shut out the rest of the world. 

QAnon is an example of the latter. What began as a peculiar message on 4chan from an anonymous person named “Q,” is now a cult with at least one member who frequents the halls of Congress. Followers believe that former President Donald J. Trump is the anointed savior who was tasked with eliminating a child-devouring cabal, and thanks to social media, that belief is now a popular opinion.

QAnon members, along with white supremacist organizations and others, are using their digital communities to warp their own sense of reality and induce violence. Regulations and oversight of social media are the intuitive response to this behavior, but even the FBI’s own report warning about violence at the Capitol based on alarming threads online could not prevent five deaths. 

The terrorist attack on Jan. 6 was the culmination of unchecked social media shenanigans that occurred for years. Not only did the Russians working under the Internet Research Agency use Facebook to influence voters in the 2016 election, but Americans themselves have spread hashtags such as #StopTheSteal to falsely accuse their fellow citizens and local government officials of voter fraud.

During the 2018 midterm elections, social media users attempted to suppress votes by sending intimidating messages, calling for election boycotts and releasing false information about voting logistics. 

This month, a Florida influencer on Twitter was arrested for telling voters to vote via text during the 2016 election. Now that people with malign intentions are sharpening their personal brands online, they can influence a large audience, which they never would have been able to access before the social media revolution.

By elevating specific voices over others, social media is giving disproportionate power to a few people while allowing others to congregate around them. 

When users face consequences for posting incendiary content on social media, public opinion is divided. The Pew Research Center reported that 78 percent of Republicans thought that Twitter’s ban on Trump was the wrong action to take, while 89 percent of Democrats thought the ban was the right action to take.

Many even thought that Twitter should have banned Trump a long time ago, so no matter what social media companies decide to do, it usually ends up kindling controversy.

Executives at these companies now have unwieldy control over the freedom of speech itself, a cornerstone of democracy. Thus, two pillars of American society — the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and our gung-ho capitalistic mentality — are constantly playing a game of tug-and-war today. 

No matter how harmful social media can be, it also is a way to exercise our fundamental rights. Activists have used platforms to combat voter suppression, raise funds and awareness, and disseminate crucial information.

Founders Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi used social media to launch the international Black Lives Matter movement after a jury acquitted Trayvon Martin’s murderer in 2013. Gen Z for Change, a TikTok group with more than 1.1 million followers, collaborated with Peaches for Progress to motivate young people to vote in the Georgia runoffs.

Hashtags, videos and photographs posted online are part of a living museum documenting injustice and efforts to combat it. Social media empowers people from all backgrounds to organize and hold their leaders accountable. 

It is not too late to prevent social media from fully embracing its sinister side. Social media companies can identify and review posts with disinformation rather than allowing false, violence-inducing content to spread from household to household.

Regulators or corporations themselves also should be able to stop attempts to create fake personas and spam pages with inflammatory messages.

But the most difficult part of this reform may not occur at the executive level or in the government. We as a society need to “stop the shouting and lower the temperature,” in the words of President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Obviously, we do not need to join hands (virtually) and start attending Zoom game nights with our most bitter political opponents, but we should start seeing each other as real people, not Twitter handles. We should return to the original goal of social media, which is to build strong connections and share our experiences to build a better world together.

Preanka Pillai is a Rutgers Business School sophomore majoring in marketing and business analytics and information technology. Her column, "Unboxed," runs on alternate Fridays.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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