Buss: Social media threatens democracy

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

I was just as excited as everyone else when my college was finally on Facebook. I opened an account that day. But now, almost 15 years later, it’s too much. A decade or more into this grand social experiment, it’s obvious social media is changing us, and not for the better.

It zaps my productivity and places me into a narrow bubble of people whose actions and feelings have little impact on my daily life. Multiply this by the billions of social media users online, and we have a fundamental restructuring of how people form and grow relationships, with huge ramifications for American political life.

The average person spends nearly two hours a day on social media. That’s five years and four months over a lifetime, and beats the amount of time spent eating and drinking, socializing, and grooming.

And although the internet has democratized information sharing by opening up access, it has also cheapened opinions. It’s taken Americans’ focus from their homes and local communities to national and international issues, which influences their lives much less.

This shift will continue to impact how we govern, how we vote and how we engage civically.

There are plenty of problems in our local and state governments that deserve attention. Our Legislature needs a watchful eye, and capable people to populate it. Michigan towns and cities need the same.

But when problems in Washington, no matter how petty, are right at your fingertips, they steal the show.

Relationships with neighbors are easily replaced by online browsing, its instant gratification and its ability to foster lazy interactions.

These sites also invite unfiltered opinions. If you think it, the world should know it was certainly the mantra of the 2016 presidential election. Social media has pushed political opinions to the extremes on both ends. There’s no filter and no decency. Generalizations abound, and offense is rampant.

Worse, these networks have created echo chambers. It’s hard to tell the difference between real grassroots activism and the perception of activism from someone shouting on Facebook or Twitter.

It’s easy to send out something angry and polarized to the faceless internet. But it’s harder to spew the same vitriol during a real conversation. Person-to-person interactions usually prompt compromise, or at least an understanding.

And sharing a status about how important it is to volunteer is a world easier than actually volunteering.

Alexis DeTocqueville, a political scientist who studied the temperament of Americans after the country’s founding, warned of the breakdown of an institution he saw as uniquely American and fundamental to the country’s democracy: associations. He said the “art of associating” was critical to the country’s success, and civilization as a whole.

Social media seems to have aggravated what was already a trend toward less civic engagement. A 2014 report showed a decline in 16 of 20 indicators of civic health, which included decreasing rates of volunteerism and engagement with community organizations.

As social media continues to erode human interaction, these associations and local governance will continue to suffer. That puts more power in the hands of the federal government, which must expand to meet the needs of people ignored at the local and community level.

Shouting online doesn’t save democracy. It threatens it by degrading some of the most necessary foundations for self-government: local engagement and strong relationships with family, friends and community.