Anti-social media: What can be done to stop platforms from driving democratic societies apart?

29 January 2024
Platforms designed to captivate our attention can foster environments where mental health deteriorates, political divides widen, and extremism finds fertile ground, writes Professor Uri Gal for ABC Religion & Ethics.
Professor Uri Gal

Professor Uri Gal

In the early 2000s, social media companies emerged with the promise of enabling global connectivity and community-building. They offered a platform for enhancing social relationships and expanding individuals’ cultural and social horizons.

At their core, these platforms were designed to break down geographical barriers and allow users from diverse backgrounds to connect, share, and interact. By facilitating the easy exchange of ideas and viewpoints, social media promised to cultivate a more inclusive and tolerant international community.

Indeed, the algorithms powering the major platforms were initially geared towards connecting users with similar interests while also introducing them to new perspectives in order to broaden their worldviews. The structure of social media networks was aimed at creating a virtual melting pot — a rich tapestry of political perspectives, cultural traditions, social interests, and personal identities.

The rise of the advertising business model

Over time, however, there has been a significant shift in the focus of these algorithms. Driven by strong commercial imperatives, social media platforms’ original purpose was overshadowed by the pursuit of maximising user engagement.

The primary revenue model for most social media platforms is advertising. The longer users stay on the platform, the more advertisements they can be shown, and the more revenue the platform can generate. This model incentivises the creation of algorithms that are adept at capturing and retaining user attention.

Engagement metrics like clicks, likes, shares, and time spent on the platform became crucial indicators of success. To increase them and prolong usage time and user engagement, social media companies began incorporating addictive design elements into their platforms.

Their algorithms also started evolving to promote content that is more likely to keep users engaged. Often, this type of content includes sensational, emotive, controversial, or highly personalised material, which, while effective at keeping users online, may not necessarily encourage a healthy exchange of diverse viewpoints.

This evolution has led to concerns about the creation of echo chambers and the amplification of divisive content, challenging the idealistic vision of social media as a platform for an expansive exchange of views.

The adverse effects of social media

There is ample evidence that this evolution in social media is associated with a range of adverse personal and social effects. For instance, it has been shown that social media is a significant cause of the surging rates of anxiety and depression in teens, and specifically teen girls. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on high school students in the United States found that “nearly all indicators of poor mental health and suicidal thoughts and behaviors increased from 2011 to 2021”. These years map almost perfectly on the rise of commercially driven social platforms.

The growing use of social media has also led to an epidemic of misinformation. Critically, research shows that the spread of misinformation is driven more by the reward structure of social media platforms than by users’ political beliefs or lack of critical reasoning.

The proliferation of misinformation has made it extremely difficult for members of societies to agree on even the basic parameters of their shared experiences. When such misinformation pertains to government actions, policies, or statements, it can distort public perception and sow doubt about governmental credibility. Perhaps not coincidentally, public trust in the US government is at an historical low.

The degradation of public discourse is particularly harmful for liberal democracies, whose very existence is predicated on the principles of open debate, free expression of ideas, and informed citizenry. Therefore, it is not entirely surprising that the global democracy index has been declining in recent years.

Moreover, the creation of echo chambers, amplification of extreme content, user anonymity, and lack of effective fact-checking in social media contribute to a political environment where compromise and understanding are difficult, leading to increasingly polarised political positions.

Is TikTok a unique driver of extremism and antisemitism?

Several surveys have come out in the last few months that indicate worryingly high levels of antisemitism, or otherwise extreme political views — especially among young people.

Harvard CAPS Harris poll conducted in the United States in December 2023 found that two thirds of 18-24 year-olds agreed with the statement that “Jews as a class are oppressors”. In the context of the war between Israel and Hamas, which started in October 2023, the poll found that 60 per cent of the same age-group agreed that “Hamas killing of 1200 Israeli civilians and the kidnapping of another 250 civilians can be justified by the grievances of Palestinians”. For both questions, agreement rates were radically lower for older respondents.

A recent Economist/YouGov poll, also conducted in December 2023, revealed a similar pattern across age groups. It found that 20 per cent of American citizens aged between 18 and 29 years believe that the Holocaust is a myth and 23 per cent believe that the Holocaust has been exaggerated. These numbers are higher by orders of magnitude compared to older cohorts in the population.

These age trends correspond well with usage of social media, especially TikTok. The service has a particularly young userbase. Almost 60 per cent of American teens report using TikTok daily and 16 per cent of teens say they use TikTok almost constantly. In line with these numbers, TikTok users allocated 32 per cent of their social media usage time to interacting with the service, by far more time than any other social media platforms.

Can the extensive time young people spend on TikTok explain their jarring views? Researchers found that videos on TikTok contain content promoting fascism, racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia. These videos ranged from espousing violence, promoting conspiracy theories, and glorifying terrorists.

TikTok’s algorithms also seem to be highly adept at drawing users into rabbit holes where they are shown increasingly extreme content, leading to a spiral of polarisation. This was demonstrated recently in an experiment conducted by the Wall Street Journal. Reporters from newspaper registered TikTok accounts posing as 13-year-olds. Within just a few hours, the app started showing them apocalyptic, conspiratorial, and highly polarised content, often reflecting extreme pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel positions, heavily leaning in favour of the Palestinian perspective. Despite activating restricted mode on one of the accounts, it continued to predominantly receive graphic and intense portrayals of the conflict.

A recent survey by Generation Lab found TikTok usage to be associated with antisemitism. Specifically, it showed that compared to non-users, TikTok users demonstrated higher levels of agreement with a range of antisemitic views. The survey also found that using TikTok for 30 minutes daily is associated with a 17 per cent higher likelihood of developing antisemitic or anti-Israel sentiments, compared with a 6 per cent increase for Instagram users and a 2 per cent rise for those using the platform X. This observation might be explained by the researchers’ other finding that views of TikTok videos with pro-Palestinian hashtags surpassed views of videos with pro-Israel hashtags in the United States by a ratio of 54 to 1.

Importantly, it seems like such disparity is neither coincidental nor restricted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A report published late last year showed that, whether content on TikTok is promoted or suppressed, depends on how well it is aligned with the interests of the Chinese government. The researchers found that the number of posts with pop culture hashtags (like #HarryStyles or #BarbieMovie) on TikTok is approximately half that of Instagram, which is to be expected given Instagram’s larger user base. However, the number of posts with hashtags that pertain to issues that are sensitive to the Chinese government (such as #Tibet, #FreeUyghurs, #Taiwan, #StandWithUkraine) is considerably lower than expected considering the size differential between the two platforms.

What can be done to mitigate the harms of social media?

In light of the evidence, it is clear that, while social media has the potential to connect us and promote an exchange of diverse views, it also has a profound capacity to divide and harm. Platforms designed to captivate our attention can foster environments where mental health deteriorates, political divides widen, and extremism finds fertile ground. The incessant spread of misinformation corrodes the very foundation of our shared reality, undermining our ability to make informed decisions and to engage in constructive discourse.

However, the challenge is not merely for individual users; it is a societal issue that warrants a collective response similar in scope and urgency to that required by other public policy issues, such as gambling or alcohol use. We must advocate for responsible platform design that prioritises the well-being of users, fosters balanced political discourse, and curtails the spread of extremism and falsehoods.

Governments, technology companies, and civil society need to work together to establish regulations and standards that encourage transparency and accountability in how content is disseminated and moderated on social media platforms. Additionally, educational initiatives should be implemented to enhance digital literacy across all age groups, helping citizen to consume data more critically and preparing them to navigate the digital world more effectively. These initiatives should be informed by research that focuses on the complex relationship between social media usage and its impact on public health and democracy.

As individuals, we have a responsibility to critically examine our own social media use and the effects it has on our lives. By being more mindful of the time we spend online and the content we consume and share, we can start to mitigate some of these negative effects.

Uri Gal is a Professor of Business Information Systems at the University of Sydney Business School. This opinion piece was originally published in ABC Religion & Ethics.

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