Social Media – A Threat to Democracy?

By Vela Velikova S6FRA

How it all began… and nowadays.

1997: The first social networking site called “Six[1]” is born: a bulletin board which connected more than 3 million users by the year 2000.  

2008: You Tube, Facebook, MySpace and Reddit counted altogether around 469 million users[2].

2022: Every minute, 347 000 new Twitter content, 1.7 million new meta content, and 500 hours of new YouTube videos are being published[3].

“Democracy relies on citizens’ abilities to obtain information on public matters, to understand them and to deliberate about them.[4] Initially an information base and a public sphere aimed at achieving cooperation and empowering people, social medias have also taken over time the form of marketing tools, censorship, manipulation, polarization area and disinformation. How is this disrupting our democracies?

A competition for visibility and audience rather than a real democratic debate

In 2009, Facebook introduces the life-changing “like” button which transforms the fate of social media users forever. It creates a hierarchy among people as posts with most likes are more prominent in feeds.

Source: Wikipedia

Mindsets change. Rather than follow friends or idols, people start seeking a maximum number of “likes” and “reposts” on their posts. According to a Belgian research associate, Antoinette Rouvroy[5], social medias follow a business model which seeks public engagement and virality: for example, platforms try to provoke hostile debates and imminent reactions rather than a constructive and respectful discussion. This allows them to collect data and to monetize it. However, this visibility is often achieved by posting irrelevant or controversial content that can even take the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Quality, honesty and relevance are not valued enough. How can a democratic debate take place in an environment where mainly visibility matters? In politics, studies have found that this pursuit of visibility has encouraged the spread of populist movements and amplified political polarization.

A violation of the freedom of expression

Digital media expose us to constant judgement. If we want to avoid “tornado of violent and despicable comments”, as the American psychologist Jonathan Haidt states[6], and preserve our mental health, we always need to pay attention to what we post. In this sense, we are not free to express ourselves as we are morally and sometimes even physically threatened. In a political context, this can take the form of coercion and harassment. 

Loss of autonomy

The European Parliament Research Service (EPRS) stressed in an in-depth analysis of  “Key social media risks to democracy[7]” how microtargeting and the personalization of online content impedes us making independent choices. The research emphasizes  narrows our knowledge and distorts our reality which further adds bias to our opinions. As a result, the American internet activist Eli Pariser describes how we find ourselves in “filter bubbles”, meaning that we rarely come across posts that refute our beliefs. Furthermore, studies have found evidence of platforms collecting private data, like “psychological inclinations”, and automating posts that converge with our personality. How can we forge our own personal views without being biased or influenced?

Photo by NBC: “Reinforcement bubbles can lead us to overestimate the prevalence of our perspective and inhibits authentic dialogue”

Disturbs cooperation, a hallmark of democracy

Social and political fragmentation can also stem from personalization algorithms. The Belgian Professor in moral and political philosophy Marc Hunyadi outlines how social media divide us into different categories of consumers according to our profiles (what we like, what we are prone to do, etc.) instead of encouraging us to pursue a common interest. Cooperation is thus inhibited, and polarization is reinforced. In a political context, this may hinder political dialogue as conflicts become more intense and compromises become more difficult to forge. In fact, 45 % of European internet users believed “that they had been exposed online to content created to divide society on a specific issue” according to an EU citizen survey conducted in 2021.

Loss of trust in democratic institutions

Disinformation is another issue raised by the EPRS that has far-reaching effects on public opinion and electoral processes. Trust of citizens in online information, including the legitimate one, has significantly decreased over the last years. The 2021 EU citizen survey found that 51% of internet European users were convinced that “they had been exposed to or personally witnessed disinformation on the internet”How can we deliberate when we don’t have access to all the information? How can we be sure that our sources are trustworthy?

Social media encouraging some emerging democracies

However, in some cases social media can help spreading democratic values around the world and even crush authoritarian regimes as everyone is connected and free to express thoughts.

This was namely seen during The Arab Spring in 2011, also referred as the “Facebook revolution”: “Social media played a significant role facilitating communication and interaction among participants of political protests […] in Tunisia and Egypt, […] in Syria and Bahrain. The platforms that people used in order to make their voices heard include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and news outlets.[8]

How will it continue?

Social media are both our saviour and our doom.

Photo by

Do you contribute to this fierce competition of likes and visibility? Would you publicly express an opinion which does not follow the mainstream and possibly lose followers? Would you give it a second thought the next time you go on Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat and see things somebody else chose for you? When was the last time you witnessed a polarization on a certain topic and felt powerless to change peoples’ minds? Do you question the reliability of information sources? Does social media know you better than you do?

Source featured image:


[1] | American company | Britannica

[2] The rise of social media – Our World in Data

[3] Data Never Sleeps 10.0 | Domo

[4] *Key risks posed by social media to democracy (

[5]Les réseaux sociaux vont-ils détruire la démocratie ? –

[6]Déclic – Le Tournant – Les réseaux sociaux vont-ils détruire la démocratie ? – Auvio (

[7]*Key risks posed by social media to democracy (

[8]Social media and the Arab Spring – Wikipedia

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