Democracy needs us: less social media and more social interaction

Facebook controls and filters our information in ways that can be detrimental for democracy. We must start rebuilding local communities to counteract its negative political effects. Español

Carolina Mila
26 February 2018

Illustration: Ashley Goodall, Pacifista. All rights reserved.

Orginial article published by Pacifista! can be read here.

Supposedly, Facebook is a tool which should connect and democratise us. This is how its founder Mark Zuckerberg has presented it many times, stating its objective to “create a global community” that transcends national frontiers and “democratises information”, facilitating access and circulation.

In just over 10 years (it was created in 2004), Facebook went from being a limited platform for Harvard university students to practically replacing the world of the internet. Today, we connect to Facebook not only to comment on friend’s photos, but also to read news and to find out what is happening in the world.

Ever since it overtook Google in 2015, Facebook has become the leading platform in directing its consumers towards informative content outside of the application itself. Facebook nowadays has more than 2130 million users meanwhile Twitter has only 332 million.

People tend to prefer Facebook because it is more orientated towards social interaction than debate and it has been so effective that the community continues to grow despite us knowing that our information is sold to marketing companies that use it to sell us things.

“A closed feedback circuit of social validation”. That is how first Facebook president Sean Parker called it in a statement made in Philadelphia last year. “We knew we had to trigger a little dopamine occasionally, whether it be because of a like or because someone had commented on your photo”.

Facebook’s creators knew it was the best way to ensure users remained connected to the application for the longest amount of time possible. They knew how to exploit our human need for contact and acceptance. The success of the platform is largely due to its highly addictive nature.

The way in which it [Facebook] presented information influenced users so powerfully that it became a tool to sabotage the opposition.

An anxiety disorder in children and adolescents called Fomo has been recognised which arises due to a desire to be popular on social networks. There is also an ongoing discussion regarding how in the near future, we will have to treat addiction to social networks in the same way we treat addiction to fast food, as a threat to public health.

Facebook has also been a protagonist with regards to political influence and citizen mobilisation, although to a smaller degree. At its best, it assisted the Arab Spring because it allowed activists to organise themselves and to share information banned by the regime, like in the case of the peace marches of October 2016 in Colombia, when the peace agreement appeared to be in danger.

At its worst, it influenced the previous North American elections, by presenting fake news and unreliable content in the same vein as trustworthy journalism. 

Facebook has unleashed consequences that nobody probably imagined were possible. At the beginning, it was clear that it favoured the free exchange of information among citizens, but with time it was shown that the way in which it presented information influenced users so powerfully that it became a tool to sabotage the opposition.

Many people feel safe from the complications of Facebook because they use the application as a news source for only relevant information (or news which their friends find relevant). But even this type of engagement with Facebook is not entirely innocuous.

The truth is that nobody sees everything that their contacts publish. They see what the platform chooses to show them according to an algorithm which Facebook does not reveal, whose objective is largely unclear.

This fact, in addition to Facebook profiting from our information, reduces internet freedom. It decides what people should be reading and it determines trends. Facebook shows the strength of the human impulse to connect ourselves with others.

To see others and to be seen, to be a part of something. It makes me think that perhaps, and for some time now, due to the speed of our cities and the immediacy of the media, people have tended to isolate themselves without knowing very well how to interact with others different from themselves.

Increasingly, we spend less time on the streets and less time getting to know our neighbours. Increasingly, neighbourhood issues are dealt with by the local authorities rather than the residents themselves. Our political participation cannot be reduced to a comment on the profiles of electoral candidates.

We cannot sacrifice a robust local community that is here and within reach every day for an abstract global community. We must return to our streets. We must believe more in human beings than in technology. 


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