How does social media affect democracy

Social media: a threat to democracy?

Bmbf.de: Mr. Schmidt, false reports on social media are believed to have had a significant impact on the US election campaign. Do you also see a threat to the European elections?

Jan-Hinrik Schmidt: Not to the same extent as in the USA. The starting point is not comparable: in Europe there are many languages ​​and very different media systems - so more diversity. This makes targeted disinformation campaigns difficult. Potential dangers would have to be looked at country by country.

Well, let's look to Germany ...

Television is still the most important source of information for Germans. This is shown by the “Digital News Report 2018” from the Reuters Institute. Only about one in three people regularly use social media for information - and for most of these people these are not the only source of information. But of course we cannot give the all-clear because there are groups in this country who are prone to disinformation.

What do you mean by that?

In particular, populists and supporters of conspiracy theories find so-called resonance chambers or echo chambers in social media, in which they sometimes isolate themselves. There they come together with their own kind in order to mutually confirm their view of the world. If deliberately scattered misinformation supports these views, then they will be believed - as absurd as we may find them.

Is that a danger to democracy - and to the cohesion of citizens?

We want to research this at the new “Institute for Social Cohesion”. We are particularly interested in the role of the media: How do different social groups use the media? What expectations do you have of journalists - and what self-image do they have? There are still many unanswered questions, but based on the current state of knowledge I would say: There are only a few people who isolate themselves and polarize themselves in the echo chambers of social media. For most people, social media promote cohesion. They help to exchange ideas and to stay in contact - with friends and acquaintances all over the world.

Somehow a filter bubble too, right? Friends and acquaintances are mostly like-minded people ...

Sure, that's in our nature. We know from social and behavioral research that people tend to get more confirmatory information. They don't like to let their worldview shake - that's why they surround themselves with like-minded people. So the mechanisms are not new. But social media reinforces it.

In what way?

The algorithms of Facebook and Co. use our contact networks and the data traces that we leave behind by liking and sharing content to suggest new things to us. However, if we are primarily recommended content that is similar to what we or our contacts have already liked in the past, this fuels the one-sidedness. That is the opposite of diversity.

What can you do about it?

First of all: Realizing that you are stuck in a filter bubble. If you then want to break out, you should consciously think outside the box - for example, after reading the FAZ, also the page of the taz visit. Incidentally, that doesn't do any harm beyond social media either. Talk to those who think differently! This broadens the horizon, creates understanding and strengthens cohesion.

Liked differently to defeat the algorithm? Sounds like David versus Goliath ...

Yes, this is why politics is particularly important here. She has to put pressure on the internet giants. How do the algorithms work, how do you filter? Every operator of social media should have to explain this - especially in the case of election advertising. It is not acceptable if part of the formation of opinion remains outside of social control and shaping.

Can you explain that in more detail?

In the case of election advertising, it should be clear why it is being displayed to me. Because I am a man, live in a certain region or am the right age? Transparency is required here.

Do you believe that the internet giants will pull along?

Yes. You cannot afford any more scandals in the long term. And keeping up with it is not difficult: algorithms are malleable! Once the social media giants are talking about transparency, they can contribute to diversity of opinion. They have what it takes: They offer a previously unknown wealth of information - so also the opportunity for everyone to conduct in-depth research.

Thank you for talking to us, Mr. Schmidt.

Institute for Social Cohesion

Jan-Hinrik Schmidt is a research fellow for digital interactive media and political communication at the “Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans Bredow Institute ”(HBI). His work focuses on the developments of "Web 2.0" and "social media". He is particularly interested in the changes in the dissemination of information and opinion-forming as well as the practices and structures that regulate digital communication.
The HBI is part of the new Institute for Social Cohesion, which is funded by the Federal Ministry of Research. The research contribution of the HBI researchers is based on the central question of what role media and communication play for social cohesion.