Can Democracy Survive Social Media?

Experts debate the toll social media has taken on democracy – from foreign meddling in elections to using fake news to sway opinions and more.

Featured Experts from the Natixis Investment Managers Summit:
  • Guillaume Liegey, Chief Executive Officer, Liegey Muller Pons
  • Rebecca MacKinnon, Director, Ranking Digital Rights, New America
  • Yascha Mounk, Lecturer on Government, Harvard University; Senior Fellow in the Political Reform Program, New America
  • Moderator: Sophie Pedder, Paris Bureau Chief, The Economist
There was a time, not long ago, when social media was viewed as a source of good. These online forums were billed as the free exchange of ideas and a modern and effective tool in the service of democracy. But recently, many are questioning whether social media has become a threat to democracy and all that we hold dear in free societies.

Group radicalization is the biggest challenge
Social media’s reach is expansive. There are currently more than 2 billion Facebook users worldwide. “That’s more than the population of China,” said Sophie Pedder, the Paris Bureau Chief for The Economist.

But the popular medium’s challenges are many and varied. The biggest hurdle, according to Yascha Mounk, PhD, a lecturer on government at Harvard University, is how to combat the radicalization caused by echo chambers – meaning the natural tendency to be pulled toward the opinions of a particular group.

“Normally our groups are constituted politically haphazardly… whoever your neighbor is, whoever is in your school class, whoever is in university with you,” Mounk said. “But on social media, we self-select. And it means you self-select people whose views are exactly like yours, and suddenly you start to radicalize rather than being pulled toward a more moderate position.”

Personal data exploited for advertising
Another critical concern is advertising technology, the business model that powers our global information ecosystem, said Rebecca MacKinnon, Director of Ranking Digital Rights at New America.

Ad-tech is driven by the exploitation of personal data so that anyone who wants to spread a message on a platform can target audiences in a very granular way, in order to influence decisions and behavior. Social media platforms are optimized to create engagement, stoke outrage and make messages go viral, which creates traffic and helps advertising, MacKinnon explained.

“Targeted advertising is like the fossil fuel of our information ecosystem… just as dependence on fossil fuel can kill the planet eventually, overdependence on advertising technology, and the unconstrained application of that technology and business model, could kill democracy,” MacKinnon warned.

An unreliable indicator of public opinion
“Public opinion is like an iceberg, and social media is like the tip of the iceberg. You need to understand what is beneath the water,” said Guillaume Liegey, Chief Executive Officer of Liegey Muller Pons, a European campaign technology company that develops tools to understand and engage with the population at the local level. He played down the threat of social media’s effect on democracy, adding that it is not a reliable indicator of public opinion.

Liegey said he had advised campaigns he worked on, including that of French President Emmanuel Macron, to gather information from online data, but then use it to physically go door to door and engage people face to face.

Giving regulatory responsibility to the platforms
Liegey, who takes a liberal approach to the regulation of social media, said guidelines should be left to companies and platforms.

MacKinnon agreed. “Let’s not overreact,” she urged. “Let’s not completely throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are some regulatory proposals out there that are overreacting – that are placing liability on internet platforms for everything their users do in a way that’s going to require them to censor and monitor people – that is going to kill online activism in a lot of places.”

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Ad-tech (short for advertising technology) broadly refers to the different types of analytics and digital tools used in the context of advertising.

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The Natixis Investment Managers Summit was hosted by Natixis Investment Managers. Natixis Investment Managers includes all of the investment management and distribution entities affiliated with Natixis Distribution, L.P. and Natixis Investment Managers S.A.