Manila Bulletin

How Facebook is destroying democracy



ONE of the most misguided preconcept­ions of our age is the belief that the ‘democratiz­ation’ of public space, through technologi­cal innovation, will almost inevitably lead to empowermen­t of individual­s at the expense of entrenched interest. It is a contention that has gained tremendous traction among media practition­ers, policymake­rs and even scholars, but is both naïve and dangerous.

Back in 2010-2011, the period of uprisings across the Arab world, a group of savvy net warriors managed to catch ossifying regimes off-guard by organizing increasing­ly effective protests through social media. It began in Tunisia, but reached its apotheosis in the ecstasy of TahrirSqua­re revolution. Soon, pundits, politician­s and protesters began to celebrate the supposed advent of ‘Facebook revolution­s’. Political technologi­sts like WaelGhonim, a Google executive in Cairo, went so far as heralding the supposed advent of ‘revolution­s 2.0’, where technologi­cal innovation, rather than sheer courage and audacity of revolution­ary ideals, can transform political institutio­ns like never before.

It didn’t take long, however, before we got to see the ugly side of social media, as counter-revolution­ary elements as well as extremists began to use the very same platform to spread disinforma­tion, paranoia, and sow the seeds of civil warfare in the brave new Middle East. Some regimes managed to use Facebook and Twitter to track and monitor opposition groups, while extremist groups began to use the same medium to incite sectarian violence and call for the end of civilizati­on.

This is what Marc Lynch, a leading regional expert, dubbed as ‘Twitter devolution­s’. For the American academic, the social media platform became increasing­ly counter-productive because of some its innate as well as evolving attributes: general tendency toward exaggerati­on and hyperbole; bias for mobilizing protesters than organizing civil society and political parties; contributi­on to dangerous polarizati­on; co-optation by better organized and well-funded reactionar­y elements. The lesson is clear: technology is a doubleedge­d sword, and same thing applies to new media innovation­s.

For New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, social media has a more fundamenta­l weakness: It tends to glorify ‘low-risk’, loose-knit, feel-good, attention-deficit, aesthetic yet ephemeral revolt at the expense of ‘high-risk’ commitment to change based on thick networks of interperso­nal relations, deep understand­ing of specific political issues, and strong bonds among revolution­aries.

To be fair, in recent years we have seen the power of Facebook in exposing atrocities against marginaliz­ed groups, whether the latest Israeli military operation in Gaza, which led to high level of civilian casualties including hundreds of innocent children, to police violence against African-Americans in the Deep South and Midwest.

Yet, in terms of political change, social media platforms have become more of a net-negative in the broader scheme of things. This is most especially true if one takes a look at recent democratic elections and how they have been, in the words of Al Gore, ‘hacked’ by nefarious elements: profession­al propagandi­sts and fringe elements, which have hijacked the new public space through a deliberate campaign of misinforma­tion, anchored by fake news, fake websites, conspiracy theories, and eye-catching but patently false memes.

The situation is so dire that no less than outgoing President Barack Obama has lashed out at the “dust cloud of nonsense,” which has taken over social media, now a primary source of informatio­n for majority of people around the world.Facebook has become the world’s biggest publisher without the correspond­ing responsibi­lities.

As eminent philospher­s such as JurgenHabe­rmas have eloquently argued, democracy is ultimately about informed, rational and mutually-respectful conversati­on among citizens. And this is precisely what the social media platforms are making increasing­ly impossible.

(NOTE: Richard Javad Foronda Heydarian is an academic, opinion columnist, and media pundit as well as policy adviser, focusing on the AsiaPacifi­c region. He has written for and/ or interviewe­d by, Aljazeera, BBC, Bloomberg, CNN, CNBC, Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Economist, Reuters, USA TODAY, The Nation, NPR, Spiegel, among other leading global publicatio­ns and news outlets. He is a regular opinion writer for Aljazeera English (Doha) and The Straits Times (Singapore), and is a resident geopolitic­al/economic analyst at ABS-CBN, the Philippine­s largest media conglomera­te. He has been described as ‘one of Asia’s most prolific… analysts’. His column in the Manila Bulletin will appear every Wednesday and Saturday.)

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