Social media has been and remains a game changer throughout this era we are living in. While it may have a rather clear downside, such as reducing the room for the usual face-to-face communication by easily allowing remote contact, there is also a clear upside of social media.
As a result of the global communication social media allows between individuals anywhere in the world, it was the engine that started revolutions across the planet over the past seven years, and it has been the sought platform for the voiceless to voice their opinions and experiences, as well as expose the sad reality of their lives, such as the viral anti-sexual harassment hashtag #MeToo.
This undying comparison between the advantages and disadvantages of social media raises an important question: can we say that, at this point, social media promotes democracy and is in its best interest by giving the people a place to express themselves? Or is it covertly harming democracy and freedoms? The answer seems to be clear to billionaire Hungarian-American investor George Soros, who claims that social media and internet monopolies in general are, in fact, a “menace” to society. George Soros is one of the world’s largest investors, with a net worth of nearly $8bn. Soros made this statement about social media during the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He especially noted that the “days of the US-based IT giants are numbered.”
Soros said that social media companies can have adverse effects on the functioning of democracy. He explained that social media companies significantly affect how people think and behave without them even being aware of this kind of impact, especially in issues such as the integrity of elections. Additionally, they deceive and manipulate as well as shift users’ attention towards their own commercial purposes, Economic Times reported.
Going back to 2016, New York Magazine reported that the United States Intelligence Community concluded that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. An assessment report titled “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”, which was issued in January 2017 by the American Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), stated that the Russian administration had favoured presidential candidate Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton through ordering an influence campaign to harm Clinton’s electoral chances. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media websites are currently facing scrutiny due to the alleged Russian interference through these platforms.
Only recently has Facebook admitted, in several blog posts written by the company’s executives, that it “fell short” in preventing the social media network from being used with the purpose of foreign meddling in the presidential election of the United States.
“Facebook was originally designed to connect friends and family—and it has excelled at that, but as unprecedented numbers of people channel their political energy through this medium, it’s being used in unforeseen ways with societal repercussions that were never anticipated,” Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s product manager for civic engagement, wrote in a blog post, according to The Washington Post. Similarly, Katie Harbath, Facebook’s global politics and government outreach director, said that her company is determined to fight any negative influences and ensure that Facebook as a platform is a source for democratic good.
Interestingly, Facebook has recently started using third-party fact-checkers in order to help flag fake news, eventually reducing the percentage of users seeing it. In addition, in response to the criticism directed towards Facebook, it is planning to survey users on the news sources they trust to allow the appearance of only trusted news on the website.
George Soros, who is the founder of the Open Society Foundations to support democracy and human rights across the globe, added in the speech he delivered during the World Economic Forum, that social media companies also deliberately make their services addictive, which can be especially harmful for adolescents.
These were not Soros’s only concerns when it came to the negative impact of social media, as he added that one of the most dangerous threats of these companies lies in their efforts that aim to encourage people to give up their autonomy.
“The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. It takes a real effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called ‘the freedom of mind’. There is a possibility that once lost, people who grow up in the digital age will have difficulty in regaining it. This may have far-reaching political consequences, and may well result in a web of totalitarian control,” said Soros. However, these powerful monopolies are very unlikely to change their behaviour unless there were clear regulations to set a limit to the extent of their influence and protect societies from them, according to The Guardian.
In a related context, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, stated in late 2017 that large digital platforms such as Google or Facebook and their advertising systems have been designed to hold people’s attention, resulting in spreading misinformation and propaganda online.
Will there be regulations to control the bad influence of social media on politics, democracy, and the deteriorating social lives of humans? Only the coming months and years can tell as the conflict continues.