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.
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.
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.
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.
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.