Democratic Functioning

EXTRACTIVE Technology is eroding democratic functioning

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Democratic Functioning

Due to perverse incentives, social media is weakening global democratic functioning.

Social media platforms – like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok – are financially incentivized to amplify the most engaging content. This leads to an overrepresentation of fake news, disinformation, and divisive content. The cumulative impact on our information environment over the past 10+ years has increased polarization, election interference, legislative lockup, and other manipulative practices that undermine democracies world-wide.

The number of global democracies has been declining since social media emerged around 2010 1
In 2019, 70+ countries were subject to social media manipulation campaigns 2
19% of all tweets in the 2016 US Presidential Election were generated by bots 3

Democracies should be a reflection of the will of the people. For people to make effective collective decisions that shape democracy, there needs to be shared understanding of what is true and what is representative of what people actually want.

Engagement-driven platforms, especially Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and increasingly TikTok, have become critical communication infrastructure, shaping civic discourse and journalism. But these platforms don’t support nuanced conversations that are capable of representing and integrating multiple opposing viewpoints –  one of the central promises and values of democracy.

Instead, they optimize for engagement, which systematically degrades our shared understanding:

Engagement maximization has detrimental effects including amplified extremism, increased perception gaps, and the creation of a fertile ground for targeted disinformation around elections.

64% of all extremist group joins are due to social media recommendation tools 4
Ahead of the 2020 U.S. election, Facebook’s top pages for Christian & Black Americans were run by troll farms 5
Each word of moral outrage added to a tweet increases the rate of retweets by 17%, which accelerates polarization 6

The breakdown of shared understanding drives real-world polarization, which undermines functioning democracy. As we become more polarized online, we also become more polarized offline. Studies have shown there is a “perception gap” between the two major political parties in the U.S., leading both to think their beliefs are more different than they truly are.

7 in 10 Republicans and Democrats perceive members of the other party to be “brainwashed” 7
Democrats believe 30% of GOP support teaching shared national history on people of color. In fact, 72% of GOP agree on teaching it 7
Americans overestimate the amount their political opponents disagree with them, often by as much as 50% 7

According to an article by Jonathan Haidt, toxic polarization and declining respect for counterarguments became more severe in 32 countries. This makes it harder for us to solve problems together, and we end up in an endless race for more extreme political viewpoints, politicians, and policies.

European politicians complained that Facebook’s algorithm forced them to be more extreme to get their messages heard 8
There was a 23% increase in incivility among politicians on Twitter from 2009-2019 9
Each negative word about political opponents increases the odds of a social media post being shared by 67%. 10

As a result, we get political representatives who are extreme and reactionary, reliably leading to grid-lock and ineffective policy.

Under these conditions, democracy becomes dysfunctional.

What can you do?

  • Support banning political advertising on social media platforms to limit disinformation, violence, extremism, and paid election interference.
  • Advocate for open primaries so that candidates on either side are not out-competing each other with more extreme positions. Open primaries encourage more moderate candidates that appeal to both parties. 11
  • Institute ranked-choice voting to eliminate two-party duopolies by allowing third parties to run without wasted or strategic voting. This will result in a final candidate that is more widely voted for and is likely to reduce polarization.
  • Implement media and campaign “quiet periods.” For example, France has an electoral discretionary period in which media outlets are prohibited from sharing any campaign-related news 2 days up to an election.
  • Endorse technology that strengthens democracies, rather than weakens them. Learn more about what Taiwan, Estonia, and others are doing to use technology for the common good.
  • As individuals, there are also various actions we can take:

Our Resources

Episode 68

The Tech We Need for 21st Century Democracy

Political economist and social technologist Divya Siddarth discusses how new kinds of governance can be better supported through technology.
Episode 53

How Political Language is Engineered

Drew Westen and Frank Luntz discuss how the language we use to talk about political issues is designed to influence our beliefs.
Episode 50

What Is Civil War in the Digital Age?

Barbara F. Walter, ​​a leading expert on civil wars, political violence, and terrorism, joins us to discuss democratic decline in the digital age.
Episode 37

A Facebook Whistleblower: Sophie Zhang

Sophie Zhang describes the anguish and guilt she felt trying to rein in fake activity by world leaders on Facebook.
Episode 5

From Russia with Likes (Part 1). Guest: Renée DiResta

Renée DiResta explains how social media platforms’ algorithms and business models allow foreign agents to game the system.

How Governments Are Using Policy to Reform Big Tech

In this video, Meetali Jain (Deputy Director at Reset) discusses the tech reform policy ecosystem and how it is evolving.
Watch Video

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Partner Organizations

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More Resources

Footnotes & Further Reading
  1. V-Dem Institute, “Democracy Report 2022: Autocratization Changing Nature?”
  2. Bradshaw, Samantha and Howard, Philip N., "The Global Disinformation Order: 2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation" (2019). Copyright, Fair Use, Scholarly Communication, etc.. 207.
  3. Bessi, A., & Ferrara, E. (2016). Social bots distort the 2016 U.S. Presidential election online discussion. First Monday, 21(11).
  4. The Wall Street Journal, “Facebook Executives Shut Down Efforts to Make the Site Less Divisive”
  5. Hao, K. (2021). Troll farms reached 140 million Americans a month on Facebook before 2020 election, internal report shows. MIT Technology Review.
  6. Brady, William J., Wills, Julian A., Jost, John T., Van Bavel, Jay J., (2017). Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks. Proceeedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) 114(28).
  7. More In Common, “Defusing the History Wars: Finding Common Ground in Teaching America’s National Story.” 2022
  8. Washington Post, “In Poland’s politics, a ‘social civil war’ brewed as Facebook rewarded online anger”
  9. Frimer, J. A., Aujla, H., Feinberg, M., Skitka, L. J., Aquino, K., Eichstaedt, J. C., & Willer, R. (2022). Incivility Is Rising Among American Politicians on Twitter. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 0(0).
  10. Rathje, S., Van Bavel, Jay J., van der Linden, Sander, (2021) Out-group animosity drives engagement on social media. Proceeedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) 118(26).
  11. Christian R. Grose (2020), "Reducing Legislative Polarization: Top-Two and Open Primaries Are Associated with More Moderate Legislators", Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy: Vol. 1: No. 2, pp 267-287.