By Michael Bevacqua
Democracies are organisms. They live, breathe and die by the relationships between voters and leaders. In general, the more engagement between the elected and the electors in a society, the stronger or healthier a democracy is. The less engagement, the weaker they tend to be.
From this foundation we can develop several maxims about how democracies function or malfunction. For example, the more people pay attention, the less likely elected officials are to get away with corrupt practices. The more people know about their government or society, the more likely they may be to support programs that benefit them and oppose those that don’t.
Finally, the more you know, as a rule, the harder it is for those in power to manipulate you. For example, if you have a basic understanding of the economy that supports your society, or how your government operates, or what kind of record your favorite politician has besides their boosted Facebook posts, all these things provide your average voter the ability to discern things like political exaggeration, ideological manipulation or even community scapegoating or distraction.
Your abilities in this regard hinge almost entirely on your access to information and how you process and understand that information. With the increased integration of the internet and social media into our daily lives, it might seem that the stage is being set for democracies to enhance and upgrade.
At present, more than ever before in human history, more information than ever about the world around us, the sum of human knowledge up to this point, is easily available for most within just a few clicks or keystrokes. Rather than being isolated and disconnected in disparate parts of our countries or the globe, the interconnections the internet and social media create, ideally should allow us to create greater feelings of commonality and solidarity, using the nuanced and detailed information we have available.
This potential is too easily lost however when matched against our basic drives as humans and the very way that social media is structured to provide information and engagement. While the plethora of knowledge available at the tips of our fingers provides the possibilities for developing greater understanding and unity, we see in reality social media and democracies today devolving into rigid partisan and tribalistic conflicts.
Socrates (through his student Plato) provided some critical commentary thousands of years ago that can help us understand this. In “The Republic” Socrates invited the public of Athens to imagine a race between two potential candidates, the first a doctor, the second, the owner of a candy store. The doctor symbolizes someone who is there to advise you and guide you to make good choices. They might tell you things you do not want to hear, but may nonetheless be in your best interest.
The candy store owner is someone who exists to make you feel good, to sell you the things that you might want, to try to make you happy and to keep you coming back. The candy store owner is not there to talk to you about the risks of the candy you are eating or be truthful about the nutritional content. He or she is there to make you feel good and encourage you to buy more of what they are selling.
In a debate, the candy store owner can accuse the doctor of many things. He can say, “Look, this person here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will.”
The world of social media today sadly seems to greatly boost (pun intended) these democratic flaws. Rather than the plethora of potential content being delivered to you, to create nuanced ideas for understanding the world around you, social media companies deliver content that you like or are drawn to, in order to entice you to keep using their platforms.
We can see the analogy of the sweet-shop owner and the doctor continue in this regard. Content that might be boring or challenging or conflict with your worldview or preferences is kept away from you. But ideas and voices that match your current world view, that match your social media tastes, are curated and served up for you, like an endless supply of plates covered in sweets.
Politics can be a process of educating and elevating discussion, by challenging and engaging with voters. Or it can be defined primarily by pandering and distracting voters. It can be something that can help enhance voters through education and enlightenment, which can mean challenging their assumptions in the name of something higher. Or it can be based on meeting them where they are at by reinforcing their biases and assumptions in order to gain their votes.
Democracies are built not on utopian unity or ideological uniformity, but on practical cooperation. Each of us is different. Despite the many things we can share, we each experience the world in our own way. Our perspectives are diverse. A democracy, at its best, is the idea that people can forge a common set of interests, and that through debate and conversation, people can work together to pass laws and policies that improve lives overall.
The health of a democracy is how well it can function despite disagreements or differences in loyalty or ideology. There will always be issues that push the limits of conversation. There will be ideas that some may feel are outside the norm and not appropriate. But ultimately democracy is determined by the consensus that is formed and the community itself is thus perpetuated. Democracies require that feeling of shared space and common cause, despite all potential antagonistic noise and partisan loyalties, there are things that people can agree and act upon.
But with the rise of social media, we see, rather than using it for people to come together and use its possibilities, to find more common ground, and instead scavenge its every corner searching for the most minute basis for enhanced tribalistic and partisan thinking. If you believe Trump won the 2020 election or feel the earth must be flat, social media will link you to those who think similarly, empowering disinformation and ignorance rather than educating.
Rather than truth being something out there that we must learn through interactions with others and the world, truth becomes what we wish it to be, with social media connecting us to any shred of content that will make it feel real.
We have seen across the world in recent years the ways in which social media has empowered candidates who seek to rewrite the history of the countries (and their own families) in their own favor. Taking advantage of peoples’ lack of knowledge about their own history and government, to fill it with self-aggrandizing narratives and blind nationalism, social media has been used within democracies to promote anti-democratic movements.
Peoples’ worldviews are fueled by social media algorithms that constantly feed them content that reinforces their most basic biases in order to keep them engaged, keep them bitterly divided and keep them using their platforms.
The power and prominence of social media have created the conditions where the overwhelming possibility of information about the world does not necessarily create better democratic engagement or more transparency about our political leaders, their records or their abilities. But, as with each democracy, it is up to its own institutions and communities as to how it navigates these rapidly changing conditions.
Guam has not been immune from this. Social media has already become an integral part of politics and our democracy, and it remains to be seen whether these trends will also find life here. We shall see in this year’s election how our island fares.
Michael Lujan Bevacqua is a Chamorro scholar, activist, author, producer and editor. He currently works at the Guam Museum as a curator. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org