How social media undermines democratic transitions



Egypt’s 2011 uprising has become synonymous with the successful use of social media to overthrow an entrenched authoritarian regime, note analysts Sean Aday, Deen Freelon and Marc Lynch. Popular and academic literature hold it up as the paradigm of social media’s effects on contentious politics. But it is equally significant that Egypt’s attempted transition to democracy after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak ended in violent political polarization and a military coup, they write for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog:

Did social media also contribute to the failure of democratic consolidation? What does this mean for future attempts at democratic transition, given that they will probably unfold in heavily socially mediated societies, too? In a new report in the Blogs and Bullets series for PeaceTech Lab, we use unique Twitter and Facebook data to explore how social media contributed to the spread of polarization and fear in Egypt that undermined its transition….While the report explores different issues, one particularly interesting dynamic we found is how the clustering of social media users unevenly influences the spread of fear.

During protest or normal periods, social media can have a propensity to bring together and organize people to achieve a common goal, but during transitional moments—often defined by heightened institutional uncertainty—it can have an equally negative propensity to create polarized communities and fuel rumors and fear, research suggests:

When individuals retreat into like-minded groups, they tend to be exposed disproportionately to messages tailored to their own prejudices. The intensity and speed with which messages and images flow through online social networks produce emotional responses that trigger in-group solidarity and the demonization of others.

In contrast to the more optimistic views of social media’s role in political protest and conflict—which posit that these media might be useful in tamping down irrational groupthink—there is evidence that within ideologically homophilous communities, social media has often fanned the flames of paranoia and mistrust.

“This novel empirical evidence is significant not only for Egypt, but for every future attempted transition that unfolds in a heavily socially mediated environment,” Aday, et al, suggest. “The online clustering into communities of the like-minded has real-world consequences for democratic consolidation.”



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