HOW SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCES POLITICS AND SOCIETY
Social media is a new medium of communication that is changing, for better and for worse, the way people interact with each other. It is not just how people communicate that changes. It also changes behaviour, which has implications for both politics and society. The changes are sometimes small, the photographing of food in restaurants before people eat, for example. Sometimes less so when a trip to Yala is not complete unless one is the first to upload a picture of a leopard on Facebook. This might appear to be inconsequential, but it is not always so. In 2018 a Chinese tourist was killed trying to take a selfie in a train, regrettably one of many such incidents. In mid-2017 the Railway spokesperson Wijeya Samarasinghe said mobile phones were associated with most of the twenty-eight deaths on Sri Lanka’s railways so far that year. Others have fallen off cliff edges or mountains trying to take selfies. Before the advent of the smartphone and social media, such behaviour was unknown.
SOCIAL MEDIA, BEING USERGENERATED, HAS NO SUCH GATEKEEPER.
For politics, it changes how people obtain news and political information, which in turn affects how political parties campaign. For societies that are deeply divided, on ethnic or religious lines, it can sow new divisions or exacerbate existing ones.
The most significant difference between social media and the traditional variety is the absence of an editor; someone who reviews reports for quality, accuracy or conformity with ethical standards. While the reliance on an editor as a gatekeeper for information was never a perfect arrangement, it did probably keep the worst demagoguery out of mainstream media.
Social media, being user-generated, has no such gatekeeper. Anyone may publish anything. The positive aspect is that this may permit a voice for those previously shut out by the political establishment, but on the other hand, it also gives a voice to cranks, nutcases and xenophobes.
This may bring to the political arena previously unheard grievances around economic, political and cultural issues. The grievances may be marginal, affecting only a few people, or even imaginary; the result of misunderstanding or misinterpretation. The ability of media users to re-post, re-share, and copy content generated by others can then magnify these.
Social media is also different from the traditional sort in that it permits immediate reactions to issues; people do not need to wait for the evening news broadcast or newspapers the next day to learn about an issue or voice an opinion.
Unfortunately, the most popular reactions will be emotional, rather than reasoned. People are moved more by emotions than by facts, which can be dry or dull. Posts evoking powerful emotions like anger and fear, resonate and are shared, allowing fear, anger and hate to spread a lot faster. This is made worse by users’ tendency to form links with like-minded people. People within our network are likely to think on similar lines, so users have limited exposure to content of a differing view. This is reinforced by social media algorithms, which tend to present posts with opinions readers are known to prefer. Users tailoring their news to fit pre-existing preferences gives rise to “echo chambers”, and increased political polarisation as people rarely hear anything contrary.
Different views can lead to online squabbles resulting in one party leaving the group and perhaps even damaging a real-life relationship. The problem is that while social media is interactive, it does not allow for the nuances or subtleties of facial expression or tone of voice that people convey faceto-face. This factor tends to make some of the discussion on social media so heated, much more so than the same conversation would be face-to-face. Anonymity also contributes to the expression of extreme views, especially when people with no real-life relationship end up arguing.
The combination: a lack of editorial oversight; the ability to share highly emotive content; and the echo chamber effect can be deadly. In Sri Lanka, the government has cut access to social media in the aftermath of ethnic violence, and there are suggestions that it should be regulated. Sanjana Hattotuwa, a researcher in web activism, digital security and online advocacy has argued that while social media is not the source of violent conflict in Sri Lanka, it is an avenue for the expression of anxieties, fears and tensions between communities. He posits that economic grievances lead to jealousies and other emotions that eventually find expression as racism on social media. He claims social media platforms provided a channel to incite hate and mob violence against Muslims in Digana, Kandy, in March 2018.
Studies by others seem to confirm that social media could change attitudes: previously tolerant individuals might become hateful after being exposed to xenophobic views online and individuals with moderately xenophobic views might become more extreme as a result of the polarising effects of “echo chambers”.
In Europe, social media has enabled populist, anti-establishment fringe movements to gain traction and enter the main political arena. An example is the Five-Star Movement in Italy. Lead by blogger and former comedian Beppe Grillo it received more votes in places with better access to broadband internet.
For governments this presents a problem, how can this be managed? Sri Lanka’s post-independence history has been replete with violence. The last thing we need is for new media to create further divisions.
A LACK OF EDITORIAL OVERSIGHT; THE ABILITY TO SHARE HIGHLY EMOTIVE CONTENT; AND THE ECHO CHAMBER EFFECT CAN BE DEADLY
Blocking access is a temporary solution at best. When social media access was barred during the last bout of violence, people quickly found a way around it. Regulation has been mooted, but the speed at which posts are shared means that it is difficult to control. Even the social media companies themselves, which try to police content are overwhelmed by the deluge of information being generated. As author Terry Pratchett put it “A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on”; something that is even truer in the era of social media.
Ultimately, the only long-term solution may be to build tolerance within society; a long process that must start at a young age and be fostered within the school system.