The future of democracies is here. I’m not talking about constitutional reform or bold new initiatives to get the vote out, but how a “coup” can take place in a democracy. Social media play a central role in this changing future. It is not only the main instrument for disseminating information, disinformation and disinformation, it has become an integral part of what people think, of how they associate with like ideas and of how they relate to each other. how they organize themselves to persuade others or subvert systems.
Arguably, social media has been around since the invention of the electric telegraph by painter and inventor Samuel Morse. The modern internet-based revolution started with apps like Six Degrees and LiveJournal in the late 90s and Myspace in the early 2000s. Social media really took off about a decade later, when people turned to social media. first visited Myspace, then Facebook, You Tube and Twitter. The global number of people using social media has grown from around 500 million in 2008 to 1 billion in 2010, 2 billion in 2015 and around 3.8 billion today. Facebook, You Tube, WhatsApp, Instagram and WeChat now represent the largest number of users. Social media users are growing globally at an annual rate of around 10%. The overall average time spent on social networks is 2 hours and 24 minutes per day; if someone had enrolled at 16 and lived to be 80, they would have spent almost 7 years of their life there.
Populist politicians around the world recognized this trend early on and began to exploit it by forging direct links with the people, disintermediating (and discrediting) mainstream media in the process. Globally, Barak Obama, with 128 million followers, and Narendra Modi, with 78 million, lead the Twitter pack. Before his account was suspended on January 8, 2021, US President Donald Trump had 88 million followers. Facebook and Twitter suspended (and then permanently deleted) Trump’s pseudonym after the violent events that took place on the United States Capitol on January 6 when the presidential votes were certified for President-elect Joe Biden. For weeks before, far-right groups in the United States had used the power of social media to stage a march on state capitals and the United States Capitol. On a rainy day in May last year, they attempted a dry and violent race, dubbed “Judgment Day,” over the Michigan State Capitol.
The surreal and violent actions that took place on the United States Capitol and the largely peaceful but widespread protests that took place in the summer of 2020 during the Black Lives Matter movement offer a glimpse into the future of democracies. As large, heterogeneous democracies are best governed from the center of the political spectrum, they will become increasingly susceptible to pressure from the extremes – right and left. In statistical terms, the tail will have an inordinate capacity to exert its influence. On the plus side, this allows for pure inclusion of otherwise quiet voices. But on the negative side, it can distort messages, disrupt progress, and incite and encourage violent protests. If a government that represents an extreme finds itself in power, the social media-aided monster could grow a hydra head and poisonous tail. On January 6, that appears to be what happened at the United States Capitol.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local law enforcement followed relevant social media threads as fervor built. The complete lack of preparation and initial empathy shown towards the protesters by some members of the police force on January 6 will have to be part of the follow-up investigations into the incident.
As a result, far-right groups have been forced out of the public domain of social media. Immediately after Trump’s ban, they flocked to another platform called Speak, until Speak Itself started outside of Amazon’s web services.
These groups have now moved to end-to-end encrypted microblogging sites, like Signal and Telegram, making it difficult for the FBI to track them. Coming at the same time as a change in privacy rules by WhatsApp, Signal crossed 50 million downloads in one week on the Google Play Store.
India ranks second for the number of English speaking social media users. And yet, the Indian context is completely different from that of the United States in many ways. Even though the Indian economy is growing rapidly, smartphones are not yet everywhere, and literacy, language and variety place limits on the impact of social media. However, the power of these platforms to influence people in viral and non-linear ways – and thus change the course of events – remains a major threat to the strength of our democracy.
In the United States, the strength of institutions, especially its courts, mainstream media, and the state’s electoral architecture, helped overcome the coup attempt earlier this month. However, in the âappointocracyâ that characterizes our institutions, we may not be able to rely on them as bulwarks. Social media companies have shifted their stance from laissez faire to greater interventionism after these events in the United States, but it just amounts to a ping pong of government power to business. As users become cryptic and underground, democracies should become aware of the problem and societies should develop solutions that blunt this extraordinary, ungoverned power.
PS: To paraphrase Karl Marx, social networks are the opium of the masses and beware of the populists who dispense this opium.
Narayan Ramachandran is President of InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand
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