Op - Ed
September 7, 2016

Social media’s challenge to democracy

By Lee H. Hamilton
I’ve been involved in politics for the better part of a lifetime and have spoken at a lot of public meetings over the years. There’s one question, I think, that I’ve heard more than any other: “If I want to be an informed citizen, which sources of information should I consult?”
For many years, I had a set answer for this. Read one or more respected news sources, I’d respond. I’m not sure how good that answer was at the time, but I know for certain it would be inadequate now.
The Internet and social media have upended our expectations of what it means to be well informed. Platforms and websites that take advantage of online and mobile connectivity are like a firehose, providing enormous quantities of information, opinion, news, statements, videos, images, analysis, charts, graphs—all of it instantly available.
The question is, what impact does this have on the public dialogue, and on representative democracy?
Clearly, these are powerful tools. As the rise of the Tea Party and the alarm over price increases for the EpiPen® demonstrate, they can galvanize large, energetic groups of people who oppose a specific target. They make more information quickly available from more sources. They give citizens multiple ways to engage the attention and interest of policy makers—and give policy makers multiple ways to gauge public opinion and seek to understand the interests and needs of constituents.
But if information has become more ubiquitous and powerful, so has misinformation. It spreads rapidly, passed along from user to user with no check. Posts tend to have no room for nuance; arguments can be explosive and arguers aggressive; drama and hysteria fuel polarization; special interests can’t help but take advantage of the context-free nature of social media.
The key question is: Does the ubiquity of information really help citizens understand complex issues, weigh competing arguments, and reach discriminating judgments about politics?
The answer, of course, is that it’s a mixed bag. Certainly, the information world we live in today is putting more stress on individual voters to make discriminating choices and on our representative democracy, which rests on institutions that were designed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Our political process has proved resilient over centuries, but social media pose a powerful challenge. They’ve brought great gifts and equally great risks, and we’d be prudent to be cautious.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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