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View from Afar: Don’t believe everything you hear on Twitter

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Saul Musker works for the Project Management Office in the Presidency. He writes in his capacity as a South African.

It is by now well established that there is a linear correlation between the amount of time you spend on Twitter and the level of despair you feel about the country. On many days, one hour on social media is enough to convince the user that no progress has been made and all hope is lost. Yet the extent of vitriol and despondency online does not come close to reality — which seems like a good reason to reduce your consumption.

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend’s mother came across Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey at a Vipassana retreat near Cape Town. He was mopping the floor of the eating hall in silence, looking pensive. One can only hope that he was reflecting on the damage his company has wrought on democracies across the world.

I have a particular distaste for Twitter, which through lengthy personal experience I associate with attacks from the South African alt-right and hard-line Zionists. If you were on Twitter at all during the past two weeks, you would have been convinced that the US was entering a full-blown war with Iran (none of those predicting World War III, of course, were experts on the Iranian regime), that Eskom was entering Stage 8 load shedding (because power was being stolen by Zimbabwe, according to somebody’s xenophobic uncle), that Minister Pravin Gordhan would be ousted at midnight (he wasn’t), and that Helen Zille was having a breakdown (okay, that one might be true).

I was relieved, then, at reports that the social media platform was down for parts of Saturday due to a severed undersea cable in West Africa. This is precisely the kind of divine intervention that we need.

My intention is not to write another column merely complaining about the dangers of social media discourse. Nevertheless, I think it is worth cataloguing some of the strong scientific evidence that has appeared recently to prove its corrosive effect – and show why it is so hard to fix.

The birth of social media promised the emergence of a new space for discourse in the public sphere – for the first time, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter offered an opportunity for citizens to engage with one another on political issues at an unprecedented scale and unhindered by geographical barriers. Fifteen years later, however, evidence is growing that the opposite effect has occurred – far from enhancing public deliberation, social media platforms appear in many cases to have poisoned it. They have facilitated the spread of misinformation, created echo chambers that have fuelled political polarisation, and allowed harassment, abuse and vitriol to erode public trust.

Four trends are supported by a growing body of scientific research:

  1. Instead of facilitating dialogue across traditional social boundaries, social media platforms have created echo chambers that reinforce and reify users’ existing beliefs. Social media users tend to seek out information which confirms their existing worldview, or to engage in political action within closed groups of like-minded people for the purpose of receiving affirmation rather than participating in debate.

  2. This has resulted in greater levels of political polarisation and extremism. Echo chambers result in what Harvard professor Cass Sunstein has termed “enclave deliberation” – although the members of online groups arrive with varying levels of conviction, the experience of being in the group draws out and reinforces their predispositions so that they tend to leave with more extreme versions of their prior opinions.

  3. Social media has become an important source of news content, facilitating the rapid spread of misinformation. News audiences increasingly use social media platforms to access media content. While the readership of mainstream news outlets still far outnumbers that of known false news sites (measured in terms of direct site visits), a comprehensive study by the Reuters Institute shows that “the level of Facebook interaction [likes, comments, and shares] generated by a small number of false news outlets matched or exceeded that produced by the most popular news brands.” The nature of social media platforms, which encourage superficial and instantaneous engagement, is conducive to the proliferation of biased, sensationalist, and provocative false content.

  4. Rather than civil or constructive debate, forums on social media are characterised by abuse, vitriol and toxicity. A Pew Research Centre report finds that 41% of Americans surveyed had experienced online harassment, while 66% had witnessed harassment directed at others. Young people were most affected by abusive behaviour online, with 67% of 18- to 29-year-olds reporting personal experience of online harassment.

Anonymity on forums where users are unidentifiable (or create false identities) encourages disinhibition. A lack of eye contact and lack of physical proximity may produce similar reactions even where user identities are known. Abusive treatment online deters many users from participating in discussions, and the resulting “filtering effect” creates a downward cycle of deterioration in the quality of conversations.

These four trends together represent a significant threat to public deliberation in a democracy. Reasoned discourse of the kind anticipated by our Constitution relies on a common factual basis for debate, a civil dialogue characterised by mutual respect, and an opportunity for different voices to participate in a unified discussion. Echo chambers, polarisation, misinformation, and abuse prevent meaningful public deliberation and stifle debate.

It is time to face the reality that social media platforms do not enhance our democracy – instead, they pose an existential threat.

The question, of course, is what to do about this. There are ways to enhance online discourse without public censorship, like recent legislation in Germany that enforces higher standards for content moderation, imposes deadlines for removing harmful content and punishes non-compliance. Governments can place a duty of care on social media platforms, like that proposed by the UK’s White Paper on Online Harms in 2019. Platforms themselves should use advanced crowdsourcing tools to preferentially display content from news sources that are trustworthy and identify content that is abusive or toxic.

In the meantime, though, there are simple things that we can all do to remain sane and push back a little against the tide of online hysteria. I have two rules: one, don’t believe everything that anyone says in a tweet or WhatsApp broadcast; and two, don’t waste time engaging with bots and aggressors. It takes determined self-control not to take the bait and participate in a downward spiral, but dignity and composure are qualities we can all offer to the Twittersphere if we try hard enough.

It will require concerted and urgent action to revive democratic engagement offline and improve it online. The first step is to recognise that our democracies are in crisis and that social media won’t fix itself. We simply cannot wait any longer. DM

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