The initial idealism of social media – democracy, friction-free communication, one-button socializing –  has vanished. Now America is embroiled in political turbulence and has suffered the largest-ever-recorded drop in government trust. (Edelman, 2018) Experts believe that the root cause of this fall is the lack of objective facts and rational discourse resulting from new technologies in media.  Obama succinctly summed up the opinions of many when he stated:

 “One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts…We are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR….this pervasive divisiveness is a condition which is only further exacerbated by social media.”

Our society no longer has a shared reality, and this is compounded by the fact that many people, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of knowledge now available and the pace of change, are quickly retreating to media echo chambers. And, when they find them, they simply don’t want to leave. Studies have indicated that familiarity with repeatedly shared content (highly common and expected in echo-chambers) increases the perceived accuracy of the content, irrespective of its credibility. (Kumar et al., 2018)  In an attempt to address this, Facebook rolled out its “related articles” feature in 2017 to expose viewers to alternate views, but users continued to ignore information that undermined their favored narrative. (Botsun, 2018). It is human nature to retreat to the familiar when overwhelmed, yet that tendency in this paradigm has already had strong reverberating effects on our democracy.


 In the hands of politicians, social media is a powerful tool and one that can be abused. For example, Cambridge Analytica developed an app called, “This is Your Digital Life” which harvested the data of up to 87 million Facebook profiles and was used to provide analytical assistance to the 2016 presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. (Wikimedia, 2021)  While the big data company has since filed bankruptcy due to the resulting scandal, this may just be the beginning of voter influence.  For example, Michal Kosinski who describes himself as a computational psychologist and big data scientist, recently demonstrated an algorithm he created to reporter Jamie Bartlett. Using innocuous information, like his fondness for The Sopranos and Kate Bush, the algorithm was able to accurately predict Bartlett’s job and religious background. Bartlett and many others now believe that politicians, being able to use big data in this way, have fundamentally changed the integrity of the electoral process.  (Munro, 2018)


The possibility of being influenced, makes involved citizens question credibility.  Many believe that the information and trust environment will worsen by 2030 thanks to the rise of video deepfakescheapfakes and other misinformation tactics. (Anderson, 2020) AI and augmented reality will make us question everything we read, hear or see to determine if its real or clever fakery. (Botsun, 2018).   For example, a team of computer scientists at the University of Washington generated some fake yet highly convincing videos using machine-learning techniques to realistically mimic how a person moves his/her mouth and duplicate his tics and mannerisms perfectly. Thus, a video can conceivably be concocted to completely dupe the public. While this may be a very interesting technological advancement, one must wonder what kind of effect this will have on truth perception. According to a recent study, 63% of 33,000 respondents said they no longer knew how to tell good journalism from rumor or falsehoods and that was before this technology was created.  If this doesn’t make you crawl back into the comfy abode of your echo chamber, I don’t know what will.


Democracy is centered on the exchange of views.  George Krimsky, the former head of news for the Associated Press’ World Services explains, “A self-governing society, by definition, needs to make its own decisions. It cannot do that without hard information, leavened with an open exchange of views.” (Krimsky, n.d.)  With everyone locked in an echo chamber, that simply doesn’t happen. However, some continue to champion social media, stating that this new technology can penetrate any censorship system in the world and asking us to notice how readily accessible information is today.  Krimsky notes, “Yes, the choices may be larger, but a case can be made they are not deeper — that big money is replacing quality products and services with those of only the most massive appeal. The banquet table may be larger, but if it only contains “junk food,” is there really more choice?”. (Krimsky, n.d.)  John Goff, a renowned digital strategist, further explains, “Because of algorithms, social media has never really been a forum for the best ideas to rise organically to the top … what’s been shown in the past several years, is that … these platforms are engineered to be vulnerable to propaganda campaigns, among other interventions.” (Botsun, 2018).  This means that the 71% of Americans who rely on social media for their news are unwittingly being fed, not the most reliable information, but rather content which increases their engagement level. (Hutchinson, 2021)


Inundation of media, campaign influence, echo chambers, appetite for sensationalistic media and engagement building algorithms have combined to create a toxic acid of fragmentation which gnaws steadily at the root of our democracy.   Yet people seek the truth. There is still a need today — perhaps more than ever — for identifying sense amidst the nonsense. (Krimsky, n.d.) The media profession must recognize that its watchdog role of democracy is in real jeopardy and step up now and demonstrate that it is special, that it offers something of true value and prove it to the public.  If media companies commit to use a significant portion of their profits to improve news-gathering and marketing capabilities and eliminate dependence upon others for their survival, then profitability and public service can go hand in hand. (Krimsky, n.d.) Then, democracy, as we have always known it, may be saved. 


Anderson, J., & Rainie, L. (2020, August 28). Many tech experts say digital disruption will hurt democracy. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/02/21/many-tech-experts-say-digital-disruption-will-hurt-democracy

Botsun, R. (2018, February 11). Dawn of the techlash . The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/11/dawn-of-the-techlash  

2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals record-breaking drop in trust in the U.S. Edelman. (n.d.). https://www.edelman.com/news-awards/2018-edelman-trust-barometer-reveals-record-breaking-drop-trust-in-the-us.

Hutchinson, A. (2021, January 12). New research shows that 71% of Americans now get news content via social platforms. Social Media Today. https://www.socialmediatoday.com/news/new-research-shows-that-71-of-americans-now-get-news-content-via-social-pl/593255 

Langston, J. (2017). Lip-syncing Obama: New tools turn audio clips into realistic video. UW News. https://www.washington.edu/news/2017/07/11/lip-syncing-obama-new-tools-turn-audio-clips-into-realistic-video

Krimsky, G. (n.d.). A free press – Krimsky on role of media in democracy. A free press – Krimsky on role of media in democracy – USIA. https://usa.usembassy.de/etexts/media/freepr/essay3.htm

Kumar, S., Jiang, M., Jung, T., Luo, R. J., & Leskovec, J. (2018). MIS2. Proceedings of the Eleventh ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining. https://doi.org/10.1145/3159652.3160597 

Munro, B. (2018). Hay Festival, 2018 – will big data and social media destroy democracy? BBC Arts. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/2WyPqhdbcpHDN9z0KdBt5Tp/will-big-data-and-social-media-destroy-democracy

Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, July 28). Facebook–cambridge analytica data scandal. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facebook%E2%80%93Cambridge_Analytica_data_scandal