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Do you think that social media is largely a positive or negative influence on New Zealand’s democracy? Why or why not? You should draw on at least five academic peer-reviewed sources to support your answer.
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Social media was created with the intention to help people maintain connections, network, and obtain information. Social media refers to websites and digital applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking. Although social media serves its purpose for the reason it was created, it is currently a negative influence on New Zealand’s democracy.
To aid in proving that social media negatively influences New Zealand’s democracy, I will be using Larry Diamond’s four key elements that have to be present in a democracy. Firstly, the human rights of all citizens must be protected (Diamond 2004). Secondly, there must be a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections (Diamond 2004). Thirdly, there must be active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life (Diamond 2004). Lastly, the rule of law must exist, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens (Diamond 2004). Throughout the essay, I will be making references to each of the elements except the latter.
Private platforms, breach of human rights
Private platforms have a large amount of power in regulating information, social interaction, and democratic activities. It has been noted by researchers that the ever-growing small number of privately-owned online platforms have been thriving. These platforms have a monopolisation tendency which which correlates with gaining data of users and earning profits. The monopolisation tendency makes it difficult for democratised and co-operative ownership models to start up and survive.
The concentrated amount of power these private platforms have does not solely affect the access to a wider information and the competency to establish non-extractive models of digital business, but people’s personal lives as well (Myllylahti 2018, 15-21). It has been noted that Facebook and Google have strong control of the digital advertising market in New Zealand. Furthermore, the two companies control over 53 percent of New Zealand’s news websites’ traffic (Myllylahti 2018, 20). However, they both do not contribute to the advertising revenue, thus, threatening the economic foundations in journalism (Myllylahti 2018, 11). A crash of the journalism industry could result in people not gaining a variety of opinions through traditional media. This may have severe repercussions for the democracy of the public sphere in New Zealand.
The structure in which the social media platform monopolies function, poses a variety of threats to democracy. For instance, the capturing of people’s private data and the selling of that information to governments and profit maximising private corporations. With the use of algorithms, platform monopolies influence the social interactions of the users through the control of private and public data. Thus, impacting the human rights of New Zealanders as their personal data is sold, thus, allowing the manipulation of their behaviour and opinions. Consequently, public trust in information systems would diminish.
Disinformation, breach of free and fair elections
The notion of “attention economy” is minacious towards New Zealand’s democracy (Zulli 2018, 146). It abuses the propensity for people to observe bogus, surprising, or emotion-stirring information and uses it as a commodity through social media platforms (Zulli 2018, 138). Thus, making New Zealanders more vulnerable to the negative effects of disinformation.
Disinformation, principally political disinformation, is used to influence politics by targeting individuals on social media. Studies have shown that false political news through social media spreads further and faster than the truth (Bennett and Livingston 2018). Thus, it is a concern that governments with the capacity and proclivity to manipulate information can create deceitful information towards individuals to interfere in the democratic processes of other countries. For instance, the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 United States election through the use of ‘bots’ and disinformation campaigns (Bennett and Livingston 2018, 129-130). Furthermore, exacerbating the issue, it has been revealed by New Zealand’s security services that foreign attempts to interfere with New Zealand’s democracy have been detected (Moir 2019). Thus, proving that the threat is present in New Zealand and preventive measures has to be taken. Hence, New Zealand’s free and fair elections, general to liberal participation and inclusive democracy is being threatened by the manipulation of social media (Moir 2019).
Filter bubbles and echo chambers
Resulting from the notion of the attention economy is the effect of filter bubbles. An example is Facebook’s news feed and advertisements. Filter bubbles are generated through a machine-learning algorithm which relies on data from user networks, comments, and likes and the amount of money institutions are willing to pay for advertisements (Ghosh and Scott 2018, 15). Using the data collected, news feed and advertisements can be targeted towards specific groups and individuals. Not only are filter bubbles in line with the business intention of keeping users interested in using social media platforms for as long as possible, but it can also be used as a form of propaganda (Ghosh and Scott 2018, 15).
As a result of filter bubbles, the effect of echo chambers form. It is the reinforcement of existing beliefs through the exposure of selected information (Palmer and Butler 2018, 251). Thus, the argument that social media allows people to share and view different opinions and perspectives, is flawed. This is because the variety of material an average person views is limited by echo chambers. Users gain access to information that interests them which results in the limited exposure of wider ranged information that can be found in newspapers and television news (Palmer and Butler 2018, 251).
Filter bubbles and echo chambers have been blamed for deteriorating trust individuals have on traditional news media to provide reliable information (Palmer and Butler 2018, 251). Thus, augmenting political polarisations, and affecting liberal democracy negatively. Hence, attaining consensus for decisions and policies made for the good of New Zealand would be onerous.
Trolling and hate speech, breach of active participation
The polarising effects of filter bubbles and echo chambers have increased the amount of trolling and hate speech in New Zealand. A troll can be viewed as an anonymous user who gains pleasure by intentionally instigating hostile reactions (Buckels, Trapnell and Paulhus 2014, 97). Basing from a study, it was found that there was a strong correlation between trolling and the personalities of “sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism” (Buckels, Trapnell and Paulhus 2014, 100). Trolling could pose as a threat to New Zealand’s society when the objective of emotional distress is targeted towards minority groups. Furthermore, it is tough to control such behaviour due to the anonymity of trolls as it is easier for them to avoid getting caught.
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Similar to trolling, hate speech inflicts damage to New Zealand’s democracy as it segregates the collective spirit a society must possess. Hate speech can fall under various categories, two of which are racial and sexualised hate speech. Racial hate speech is aimed at ethnic minority groups. Over recent years, there has been a surge of cyber racism (Jakubowicz 2017, 56). According to Professor Paul Spoonley of Massey University, the “alt-right” groups have become sophisticated in using technology for their agenda (Beckford 2019). This is evident from the world’s reaction to the recent Christchurch attacks. Although the world’s general public condemned the shooter, there were voices heard praising the shooter for his act (Steger and Huang 2019). Hence, social media is used as a medium for spreading radical views throughout many countries.
Sexualised hate speech has a misogynistic nature and is often faced by women and the LGBTQI community (Jakubowicz 2017). Such hate tends to be displayed towards victims publicly, and towards people of influential status. Overall, hate speech pressures affected groups to seek safety and disengage with national debates and institutions.
In a 2018 study conducted by Netsafe, it was found that 11 percent of New Zealanders faced online hate speech. Out of those 11 percent, 3 out of 5 people were emotionally affected which resulted in behavioural changes (Netsafe 2018, 5). Thus, efforts taken towards broadening the inclusivity of the public sphere has been negatively affected (Netsafe 2018, 34-35). Furthermore, the study shows that there is a direct relation between disagreements with a person’s opinions and an individual’s affected willingness to express their opinions on controversial public issues by their largely unconscious perception of those opinions as being either popular or unpopular (Netsafe 2018, 34). Thus, reducing the importance of contentious perspectives by minority groups. Therefore, acts such as hate speech and trolling have the capacity to promote hostile behaviour instead of reasoned debate. Consequently, directly impacting democratic and active participation of New Zealanders.
Although social media has a large number of disadvantages in upholding democracy, it has created new areas for people to take action on social issues. For example, the recent climate change strike which occurred throughout New Zealand gained a turnout of approximately 170,000 people (Deguara 2019). Furthermore, the climate change strike did not only occur in New Zealand but throughout many countries (Deguara 2019). Thus, creating international campaigns and communities have become easier through the use of social media.
In conclusion, social media has various negative impacts on New Zealand’s democracy as it breaches the notions of human rights, free and fair elections, and active participation. It will continue to pose as a threat to society if the concerns, explained earlier, are unaddressed. Therefore, the lack of intervention of the destructive patterns of social media could potentially lead to political and social unrest. Ultimately, being destructive and defeating the intent of its purpose.
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