Future Tense

Social Media Is Not Destroying America

People were once overly optimistic about social media’s potential to spread democracy. Now the pendulum has swung too far the other way.

Anti-government protesters hold a sign referencing the Facebook social networking website that has been important in organizing protesters in Tahrir Square
The Tahrir Square protests in Cairo in 2011 marked the height of social media optimism.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Every time I look at social media, it seems, I see someone proclaiming the dangers of social media. There are too many dark takes to list here, but key themes include Twitter spreading misinformation, Facebook helping Donald Trump win, Russia waging a social media war against the U.S., and filter bubbles ruining democracy. Basically, the argument goes, Facebook and Twitter are destroying America.

These are just a few storylines out of many, and some of them include valid points. But combined, they contribute to an overall impression that the internet does more harm than good. This wasn’t always the case. The media narrative about the internet appears to have come full circle, with one oversimplified take replaced by another. Where we once saw the internet as the catalyst to overthrowing dictators, now it’s seen as a tool of autocrats. Social media used to connect humanity, now it drives us apart. The onetime platform for courageous dissidents is now a breeding ground for terrorists, racists, and misogynists.

It’s not just the media making that case. Policymakers are also down on the web. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May wasted no time in blaming the internet for the terrorist attack in London earlier this month. “We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed,” she said. “Yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services provide.” Now May plans to join forces with French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron in fining tech companies that do not take action against online extremism.

Even Barack Obama, known as America’s first social media president, has changed his tune. There was a lot of buzz about how social networks helped Obama get elected in 2008, and a sense of optimism about technology coursed through his administration. So it was striking that in his farewell speech, Obama mentioned social media just once, and the reference was negative. On social media, he said, we surround ourselves with people who “share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.” He referred to the internet as well, in an equally unflattering description. “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet,” he said, “try talking with one of them in real life.”

Hillary Clinton also appears to have soured on social media. At a recent Code Conference, Clinton highlighted social media’s role in spreading fake news. Clinton has long pointed out both the benefits and drawbacks of the internet, but her tone used to be more upbeat. As secretary of state, she gave several major internet freedom speeches highlighting the power of connection technologies. Clinton’s State Department, where I worked, was infused with excitement about the power of Twitter diplomacy.

It’s hardly surprising that both Obama and Clinton would be wary of the internet, given Trump’s savvy use of social media, the rise of the “alt-right,” the endless controversy over Clinton’s emails, WikiLeaks’ disruption of the Clinton State Department, and the notorious hacking of the Democratic National Committee. During the election itself, however, techno-pessimism was a bipartisan issue. You didn’t hear candidates talking much about the liberating power of social media, for example. Instead, Trump made statements like “I sure as hell don’t want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our internet” and “We have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyberwarfare.”

Yes, the internet has serious downsides, among them a broken social media culture. But while it’s important to point out the dangers of technology, excessive pessimism has its own risks. Policymakers could point to fake news to justify censorship. China, for example, has threatened jail time for spreading online rumors. Fears of terrorism can also lead to laws that force technology platforms to hastily remove content, and this can have a chilling effect on free speech. Some fear that this is what will happen in Europe.

Furthermore, excessive pessimism can cause people to lose faith in the power of social media as a tool of resistance, at a time when political activists need technology more than ever. Dissidents can’t afford to cede the social media battleground to authoritarian regimes. If governments are using technology to surveil opponents and spread official propaganda, then activists must use the same tool to push out their own narrative. If Trump uses social media to attract supporters, then the opposition can tap into the mobilizing power of social media to fight back.

Technology is both a problem and a solution, says Cory Doctorow, activist and most recently the author of the novel Walkaway. Technology users still have an “enormous advantage,” he says. “The only way that we will assert popular resistance against autocratic control of technology is by seizing the means of information. We’re not going to get there with tin cans and string.”

It may be that the current pessimism about technology is partly the result of unrealistic expectations that the internet would somehow set us free. Much-hyped social media revolutions—from Iran to Egypt to Occupy Wall Street—have led to disappointing results. Countries like China have proved remarkably adept in reining in online dissent. The techno-optimism once swirling around Washington and Silicon Valley contributed to initiatives like the infamous ZunZuneo, a failed U.S. government attempt to create a social network in Cuba. Some degree of techno-skepticism on the part of both users and policy makers is both necessary and good. Dissidents need to know how to protect themselves against surveillance. It’s also important to understand the degree to which social media can be manipulated by extremists and other bad actors, and technology companies can do more to make their platforms safer.

The bottom line is that the internet isn’t inherently liberating or repressive. If we went a little overboard with our techno-exuberance, now the pendulum may be swinging too far in the other direction. Let’s not make that mistake again.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.