Geoffrey Stone’s Social Media Book Reviewed

Can democracy survive social media?

It is no secret that politics have gone digital. Most of us get at least some of our news about politics online, and many of us follow politicians on social media platforms. We may express our views by commenting on public officials’ social media posts or tagging them in our own posts. Political activists circulate online petitions and organize rallies and protests through hashtags. Campaigns use social media to promote candidates and to recruit volunteers for canvassing, phone banking, and, more recently, text banking.

The internet can be a potent force for democracy, drawing more people into active citizenship, providing new avenues for amplifying their voices, and increasing their participation in the political systems that affect their lives. But the digitization of political life can also threaten democracy, a threat most palpably manifested in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. Social Media, Freedom of Speech, and the Future of Our Democracy and Selfie Democracy are two recent books that aim to diagnose the ways that digitized democracy degrades American political institutions and to offer critiques and solutions that could recalibrate digital politics toward the common good.

Both books name and discuss an array of challenges wrought by our emergent era of digital democracy: the illusion of direct access to candidates and elected officials, the spread of fake news and disinformation campaigns, the effects of amoral algorithms designed to amplify content that keeps people glued to their screens regardless of the content’s accuracy, and the ways social media algorithms influence people’s worldviews and moral agency. Both books are worth reading for anyone concerned with how internet usage is reshaping our personal and collective identities, increasing political polarization, radicalizing Americans toward political violence, and eroding trust in democratic institutions.

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