Is AI-backed Social Media Fuelling Polarisation?

Celebrated political philosopher John Stuart Mill in his highly acclaimed essay ‘On Liberty’ suggests that no dogma or doctrine must be allowed to suppress an opposing opinion, even if it appears to be completely false. In his own words, if all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” 

For Mill and other liberal philosophers therefore, no matter how clear our convictions about a subject are, shunning alternative or opposing ideas is never an option. 

However, the greatest paradox of today’s information age lies in the fact that instead of appreciating diverse views, individuals are increasingly becoming prisoners of their own closely held convictions. Much of this danger is perpetrated by social media platforms that are fast becoming the primary source of news and information for citizens globally. 

For starters, it is necessary to acknowledge that apart from being popular information exchanges, social media companies are also profit-making businesses. They have a well chalked out advertising-centred revenue model which runs on the basis of maximum engagement of users. Longer a user spends on a social media platform, more attractive the space becomes for advertisers.

To make maximum engagement possible, social media platforms use algorithm-based Artificial Intelligence (AI) and reproduce content which users finds most appealing. They are thus repeatedly exposed to the political content that they’re most interested in, or in agreement with. In the process, the users get increasingly absorbed into a particular narrative (the so called information cocoons or echo chambers), gradually shunning out opposing ideas or points of view. This repeated exposure to consistent political ideas causes a self-indoctrination of the users, and carries the risk of pushing them towards the fringes of political opinion. 

The problem is further complicated due to the highly contagious nature of offensive or violent content shared on these platforms, that can cause serious indignation amongst communities. Unchecked misinformation and falsehoods further add to the complexity. 

Mincing no words during a hearing on social media algorithms, Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, recently told a US senate panel, “Their business model is to create a society that is addicted, outraged, polarised, performative and disinformed”.

In September 2021, NYU Stern Centre for Business and Human Rights  published a study which suggests that although social media platforms are not the original or main cause of rising polarisation in the US society, they do intensify divisiveness! The study in particular focuses on the role that social media played in accelerating polarisation along racial and immigration lines during the Trump presidency. This eventually led to the ugliest showdown of US political history when Trump supporters seeking to overturn the election results, attacked the Capitol in January 2021. They had clearly been charged up with social media rumours of poll rigging and even ridiculous conspiracy theories of a “satanic cabal of high-ranking Democratic pedophiles” usurping power.

The divisive nature of social media content could deepen the socio-political cleavages in countries having diverse ethnic groups or pre-existing volatility. In India, the rise of right-wing politics in recent times has coincided with the relentless use of social media in political communications. Likewise in Palestine, rumours and misinformation spread on social media, and consumed by the rival Muslim and Jewish communities is often a cause of serious conflagration. In a 2021 flare-up between Hamas and Israeli Air Force, facts were distorted and provocative content shared on Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube, which significantly heightened tensions on both sides.

Social media clearly has repercussions beyond the online space and can act as a catalyst during tense political situations and emergencies. Due to the highly personalised nature of its content, it is much more impactful than conventional media like TV or radio channels. 

It is high time therefore that social media companies were brought under the vigil of independent institutions that will, for starters, demand greater transparency into the circulation of information. Subsequently, legislations must be brought in, asking these companies to employ adequate number of human moderators to regulate the type of content being circulated, especially during emergencies. This will obviously increase the costs for the companies and may even carry risks of curbing free speech. The challenge for policy-makers will therefore lie in walking the tightrope and ensuring that benefits of regulation outweigh the costs.

[Photo by Pixelkult / Pixabay]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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