Hype Democracy: What is the role of social networks in radicalising the democratic process and its mass impact?

Hype Democracy: What is the role of social networks in radicalising the democratic process and its mass impact?

Social networks have become an integral part of life, including politics. People use it to express their opinions, collaborate, organise and protest. Politicians and public officials also use social media to promote activities and communicate with voters.

However, social networks are not only a source of information but also a resource for disseminating it. The tools developers and owners provide users can be helpful and influence social groups.

Read the article to learn how social networks influence democratic processes.

Democratic processes from Facebook to TikTok

2011, the Arab Spring (mass protests against dictatorship — ed.) was in full swing. Anti-government protests occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries. The protesters called for democratic change and equality. 

The massive scale of the protests, their spread, and protesters’ comments and opinions were shared on social networks — at that time, Twitter and Facebook. The latter was the primary tool for gathering, coordination and communication. 

Social networks have become such an essential tool for protesters that in Egypt in January 2011, at the height of the protests, the authorities shut down the internet where Egyptians coordinated their actions and planned their marches.

The Arab Spring set a precedent and showed how influential social networks have become for civil society. People were able to influence politics directly. In addition, social networks have become a means for horizontal cooperation in communities. 

The growing popularity of social media has also led to the arrival of politics in the online environment. Donald Trump used Twitter for his 2015-2016 presidential campaign to communicate directly with his supporters. This helped him to bypass media intermediaries and communicate his position in his own way, with expressive and even offensive language. 

Moreover, Trump's tweets in early January 2020, before the inauguration of the 46th President Joe Biden, led to the storming of the Capitol (the violent protests of 2021 organised by Trump supporters to change the results of the 2020 election won by Biden – ed.) Twitter reported that they noticed an increase in messages with "violent rhetoric" immediately after Trump's tweets about "hoaxing" the election and calling for "fighting to the end".

How do ordinary reactions to friends' posts help politicians? 

Social networks have also become a tool for strategic communications, where customers can direct the narratives they need to the right audience through targeting and personalisation of managed advertising. User data and their "digital footprints" (personal information, reactions to posts, personal records) are used to analyse and influence emotions or behaviour. 

In 2017, The Guardian published information that the British consulting company Cambridge Analytica collected Facebook user data and used it to target political campaigns and influence their decisions. The company also launched a questionnaire on the social network for users to provide information about themselves for "academic purposes voluntarily". 

US presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and British politicians campaigning for Brexit used the company's services. 

Social networks independently collect data about their users: personal data, location, messages and posts, reactions to messages, and even information about the devices used (smartphones, laptops) and the user's contact database. 

In its terms of use, Facebook "uses information to help advertisers measure the effectiveness of ads and services and to understand the types of people who use their services". This is how social networks help to target ads to users, including political ones.

Olha Snopok, digital platforms analyst at the NGO OPORA, believes that social media is interested in keeping its users' attention for as long as possible and, therefore, tries to individualise content for each person, all for profit.

"For users to stay on the platforms, they need to like the platforms and the content and evoke pleasant emotions. That's why social media use two important components — information about all users and algorithms that analyse this information. And according to the characteristics or preferences of each user, the algorithms select the videos and posts that should be liked," explains Olha Snopok.

TikTok, a video content distribution platform owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, does this exceptionally well. TikTok tracks interactions with the stream and individual videos from the user, as well as location, personal data, and messages. Also, in 2021, cybersecurity experts discovered that TikTok could collect voice and visual information for "advertising recommendations and video effects".  

The main audience of TikTok is users aged 18-24, which is more than 36%. This is one of the reasons why the European Commission, Canadian and US governments are concerned that TikTok could be used to influence democratic processes.

Radicalisation of democratic processes on social networks

Collecting information about users has become a tool for organisations or individuals to radicalise political and social processes. 

After analysing a profile, relevant content is targeted at a person. The more often a user interacts with the content, the more they see it, and the more they end up in an ‘echo chamber’ — an environment where they only encounter information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own.

Olha Snopok says that a closed environment can quickly provoke the radicalisation of a user's political sentiments.

"A certain user, for example, does not like the idea of closing borders for men during martial law. Since it is interesting to hear and learn about this, the person likes posts criticising the closure of borders. The user will consume such content more and more, subscribing to various publications or opinion leaders who deny the need to close the borders. Eventually, they will enter a closed community, and it seems to them that everyone around them thinks that closing the borders is a bad idea. In this closed community, it is easier for people to become radicalised, to create conspiracy theories and to agree on an action. This is the principle behind TikTok," Snopok explains.

Researchers from the University of Roehampton believe that people spend more and more time on social media — up to nine hours a day — and, therefore, are more likely to enter closed spaces. And the sense of belonging creates a "potential catalyst for the consumption, acceptance and integration of radical ideology".

"To influence the Ukrainian information space, Russia uses social networks that do not moderate content (Telegram) or tolerate Russia (TikTok). They promote the topic of negotiations and try to destabilise the situation inside the country. The main goal of such influences is to destroy unity within Ukrainian society and the willingness to fight, spread disbelief, and identify people who ‘hesitate’ and are ready to cooperate with the enemy," 

explains Olha Snopok.

Hype democracy 

The forms of content distribution and the speed of changes in social networking trends lead to users paying less and less attention to certain information and becoming saturated with it. To attract interest, content creators, especially politicians, are increasingly using populist rhetoric: slogans instead of explanations, personalised rhetoric, and appeals instead of dialogue. 

In this way, they group supporters around them, using algorithms and 'echo chambers'. They also create an image of a 'strong leader' who is not afraid to 'speak plainly' — an almost fascist tactic. 

Laura Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Communication and Journalism at the University of Antwerp, explains the growth of such content: politicians create a trend on social media that is quickly picked up by automated algorithms. The populist content of the message is covered in the media, which encourages its further spread. 

This is called the 'hype' strategy - rapid growth on social media, followed by spread in the media with the help of populist statements. Its use affects not only political campaigns but also political activity in general. Researchers at eMarketer have concluded that conventional vertical videos and populist hostile rhetoric are more effective for targeting. 

With the main content being vertical short videos, TikTok is already becoming a leader among political campaign tools. Politicians are going there for a young audience that tends to respond to fast trends and personalised rhetoric. This is how young people become radicalised. 

A group of communication researchers from the University of Ghent and the Catholic University of Louvain believe that more than half of young people in Belgium and France aged 15 to 21 are exposed to radical ideas and express a desire to participate actively in violent political protests. 

This is because of "low social integration among young people and the desire to find like-minded people on social media". Such opinions have nothing to do with the dynamics in their families. Most families did not adhere to particular religious beliefs or practices; only 16% of the respondents belonged to the working class.

Communication scientists from the University of Ghent believe that the problem of youth radicalisation can only be overcome by a systematic approach to preventing radicalisation. It is necessary to recognise a group of people, especially teenagers, who may become radicalised in the future and to work with the cause of potential radicalisation. 

Radicalisation begins with a sense of social injustice and low integration in society.

This problem can be addressed through local social policies individually tailored to the needs of each group. Extremism is often linked to personal experiences and local circumstances, so it is better and quicker to recognise it at the local level.