Abstract: The public sphere's operation is dependent on the open access of locations that enable people to congregate together and participate in political deliberations. Virtual communities implemented through social media have reshaped the public sphere's third spaces of discussion. But Facebook’s compartmentalisation of communities is detrimental to the operation of the public sphere. Facebook's generation of echo chamber induced groups enables a polarised feedback mechanism which increases social fragmentation of divergent ideologies and the erosion of rational discourse. Using a variety of studies and peer reviewed journals I will be explaining the process behind how categorical identities lead to the segregation of specific ideological communities which destroys the ability for public rational debate, impeding on the proper functioning of the public sphere and democracy. Full text: Social media has become an essential part in the contemporary operation of the public sphere. Its omnipresence in society has enabled people to congregate within a digitized third space to partake in discourse and help to formulate opinions on political proceedings. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, are commended for revolutionising democratic mediations by enabling the public sphere to operate without the constraints of time or location, helping the spread of social awareness and political advocacy, while enabling communities to grow and deliberate on a variety of subjects and ideologies. Jürgen Habermas explains that the principal function of the public sphere is to allow for informed citizens to freely exercise political discourse regarding the relation of state and power. His ideas suggest that successful democracies are legitimised by the public spheres approval that political decisions are fair and for the benefit of society (Stohr, 2013). Habermas highlights that a healthy public sphere is reliant on the unpersuasive distribution of information which allows individuals to construct their subjective opinions and participate in composed political debate with a diverse range of people from their surrounding community (Stohr, 2013). The public spheres operation is dependent on the open access to locations that enable people to congregate together and participate in political deliberation. These ‘third spaces’ have existed throughout time as cafes, public libraries, universities, and wherever public debate took place outside formal institutions (Delanty, 2018). With the rise of the internet, modern third spaces have emerged onto a digital landscape. Virtual communities implemented through online forums and social media platforms have reshaped the public spheres arenas of discussion, which exists alongside other kinds of physical community (Delanty, 2018). Though social media has been commended for allowing modern deliberations to thrive, Facebook’s platform facilitates the compartmentalization of groups which fuels the segregation of differing ideologies, construction of echo chambers, and the polarization of its users – which consequently erodes the proper functioning of the public sphere in its approach to conducting political discourse. In this paper I will be focusing on how Facebook groups facilitate the construction of ideological regulated communities, which rather than being an idealistic virtual third space, become incubators of reaffirming pre-existing personal beliefs which polarizes ideologies, restricts rational debates, and damages the system of democracy. Communities of categorical identities Facebook’s social media platform segregates political ideologies by constructing communities of similar categorical identities. Since its public inception in 2006, Facebook has been a world leader at alluring people to divulge enormous amounts of personal information in exchange for access to its platform (Marichal, 2012). This information is especially valuable to the framework’s algorithms, advertisers, and political stakeholders which has shaped Facebook’s business model into a necessity of maintaining its user’s attention (Marichal, 2012). To ensure that its users are continually engrossed to its platform, the social media giant exploits this personal data to dispense ideological content that aligns with its user’s choice of taste and culture - facilitating the construction of categorical identities (Pesce, 2017). The construction of a categorical identity allows users to help build networks and join communities which align with pre-existing ideologies. This enables the social interaction from people who have similar preferences towards content (Delanty, 2018). Calhoun (As cited by Delanty, 2018) explains that computer mediated communication aids the interaction of categorical identities. He sees the internet as a producer of virtual communities of similarities rather than networks of diverse people. Virtual communities are understood as a system of social relations, rather than location, where belonging requires the sense of sharing or understanding the same lifeworld terms (Delanty, 2018). These online communities enable the capacity for greater connection between people with similarities while inadvertently excluding people who do not necessarily share the groups ideology. Facebook’s group platform enables users with similar categorical identities to ensemble together to expand and deliberate on like-minded subjects. Groups can be either public or private, but in adherence to most community theology, consist of a collective held together by a similar interest or goal, giving new possibilities for expression, and enabling them to adapt to distance. However, these communities are more than likely to be based on the sharing of a single concern and made up of like-minded individuals rather than diverse network of various ideological positions (Delanty, 2018). The creation of communities with similarities segregates people into purpose-built enclaves where they can experience their already accepted ideological narrative from a group of like-minded individuals. This segregation from a diverse range of people keeps virtual communities compartmentalised rather than creating a public medium of deliberation which reduces the possibility of allowing alternative ideas to be voiced. Continually reinforcing the accepted ideological narrative isolates the community away from democratic processes as it only strengthens pre-existing social and political realities (Delanty, 2018). Echo-chamber induced communities The compartmentalisation of Facebook groups immerses users into a feedback loop of concurring ideological narratives which fuels the creation of echo-chambers. Facebook’s creation of categorical identities enables the possibility for users to cherry-pick content that confirms or supports their established ideological narrative. Continual exposure to information that confirms already held beliefs can induce individuals into a confirmation bias (Quattrociocchi et al., 2016). Confirmation bias’s are the result of identifying with information that verifies already held beliefs while rejecting information that is inconsistent to their ideological narrative (Zollo et al., 2018). Enabling users, who are subject to their own confirmation bias, to formulate groups with like-minded individuals increases the tendency for favoured belief structures to be continually presented (Orowa et al., 2020). Immersion of exclusively selected content that aligns to a favoured ideological narrative induces the group into an echo-chamber (True & Morales, 2019). An echo chamber, also known as a confirmation bubble, restricts the number of ideological perspectives that a group is exposed to (Del Vicario et al., 2017). This helps to solidify the acceptance of the group’s ideological bias while normalizing the behaviour of rejecting dissenting information (Zollo et al., 2018). Eliminating reasonable and alternative sources from civic debate combined with conformity and repetition of favoured ideological narratives can manipulate the perceptions of its members and influence their assessment of public opinion (Avlon 2019). A study conducted by Quattrociocchi, Scala, and Sunstein (2016) explores the effect that echo-chamber groups have on the treatment of two distinct narratives on Facebook, involving the spread of conspiracy theories and scientific information. The study found that intentionally false claims about the groups preferred narrative were accepted and shared, while debunking information that went against ideological preferences were mainly ignored. The echo-chamber induced communities were all statistically similar in terms of how communities were constructed by like-minded people and the way they interacted with content. For both conspiracy theories and scientific information, the more active a user is within an echo chamber, the more that user would interact with likeminded individuals. Group induced confirmation bias helped to account for users’ decisions about spreading favourable content, thus creating informational cascades within communities of similarities. While exposure to alternative narratives showed to potentially increase the commitments of users who favoured conspiracy theories (Quattrociocchi et al., 2016). Facebook's construction of compartmentalised groups enables a single serving ideological narrative to be continually presented within the virtual community (Zollo et al., 2018). Users are more likely to dispense and interact with specific content that conforms to the groups accepted ideological narrative. People are able to easily align themselves with views and beliefs that are corresponding with their immediate interests, while also contributing similar content to the segregated community. This feedback mechanism greatly restricts the number of alternative perspectives a group is exposed to (Park et al., 2018) Habermas explained that citizens are required to be exposed to alternative views on public affairs to formulate opinion and participate in political discourse. Facebook's segregation of users away from an open public third space into compartmentalised groups with similar-minded ideology becomes a threat to a healthy democracy through the solidifying of existing belief structures and an increase in polarization (Orowa et al., 2020). Polarization and erosion of deliberation The exposure of echo-chamber induced communities exacerbates the polarization of ideologies which degrades the ability for composed public deliberation. Segregated communities continual dispensing of self-interested ideologies reinforces the attitudes and beliefs embraced by its users. The reinforcement of pre-existing beliefs, combined with the normalising behaviours of rejecting disagreeing content, advances the fortification of a user’s personal ideology (True & Morales, 2019). Polarization of ideology increases public divergence and prevents the ability for social cohesion to the point where opposing stances start to view each other as existential threats (García-Guadilla & Mallen, 2019). This polarization of ideology impedes on people’s ability to consider other points of view, generates stubborn sentiments towards alternative ideas, and hinders the ability to learn and build on opinions by critiquing and encompassing new information (Orowa et al., 2020). Sunstein (2009) suggests that deliberations which take place in echo-chamber induced communities usually end up at a more extreme ideological position, rather than coming to a rational compromise on a particular inclination. Because of Facebook’s compartmentalisation of groups, alternative information and views can be discredited, similar ideological stances can be persistently reinforced, and group members can continue to deliberate without outside interference. This seclusion of community’s results with users’ ideological positions becoming further entrenched and polarized. Sunstein suggests that segregated enclaves of like-minded individuals are often the breeding grounds for extreme ideologies. This is because group segregation produces ideological polarization, and polarization frequently results in the rise of political extremism (Sunstein, 2009). Though polarized discourse is generated through Facebook's compartmentalised communities, a user’s ideology continues to be voiced even when away from a segregated group. Discussions that move to a more public forum involving alternative ideological perspectives usually become inflamed due to a polarized user’s inability to conduct rational debate. Cemented ideological stances are usually stubbornly expressed and defend which results in discussions becoming inflamed. Public discourse quickly becomes argumentative, dividing political cohesion, and amplifying the solidification of polarised views in a continual repetitive cycle. This results with an increase in intolerant political engagement, and an increasingly fragmented public sphere (Iosifidis & Wheeler, 2015). Inflamed arguments participated by polarized Facebook users inhibits the ability for public discourse to find common ground for consensual decision-making. (Edda, et al., 2020) As discussed by True and Morales (2019), being mindful of alternative attitudes in public life hypothetically improves political tolerance. Communities that validate the behaviour of rejecting non-conforming information has the possibility to increase intolerance and the deterioration of public deliberations. The polarization of ideologies causes an exacerbation of contentious political arguments and increase society fragmentation which erodes the principal function of the public sphere. Conclusion While Facebook has the potential to expose users to a diverse range of information, a more realistic possibility is that Facebook exacerbates users' tendency to form a polarized view of the world. This is not because Facebook constrains access to the view of others, but because the architecture of the platform is set up to encourage more dialogue within isolated communities and less listening to the wider public. As explained by Habermas, the principal function of the public sphere is to enable informed citizens to freely exercise rational deliberation regarding the relation of state and power. But Facebooks compartmentalisation of communities erodes the public sphere’s ability to congregate on an open forum, be unpersuasively informed, or even rationally deliberate. Facebooks segregation of categorical identities obstructs the public sphere dependence on congregating a diverse range of ideological stances. Its compartmentalisation of communities inhibits the ability for a diverse range of ideological narratives to be comprehended, discussed, and learnt, which constrains rational critique of encompassing new information. This facilitates a like-minded ideological narrative that reaffirms the acceptance of an individual’s pre-existing belief structure. A continuous stream of similar ideological stances reaffirming an individual’s predisposed beliefs is counterproductive to Habermas’s explanation to the necessity of unpersuasive distribution of information. The echo-chamber that is produced from such segregated communities solidifies a user’s perception while normalising the practise of rejecting alternative information that diverts from the accepted ideological narrative. This increase of polarization amongst Facebook users fuels contentious political deliberations and inhibits the ability for cohesive debate. The extinguishing of rational public debate impedes on the publics ability to agree if certain political decisions are fair and for the benefit of society. Without the ability to do such, the public sphere is at risk of not being able to facilitate its job that it is intended to do - freely exercise political discourse regarding the relation of state and power. Without the ability to conduct deliberation, the public sphere becomes powerless, and endangers the system of democracy, which could see the rise of tyranny or even worse – indifference. References Avlon, J. (2019, Nov 22). Confronting the cult of partisan media. CNN Commentary https://link.library.curtin.edu.au/gw?url=https://www-proquest-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/wire-feeds/confronting-cult-partisan-media/docview/2316749611/se-2?accountid=10382 Delanty, G. (2018). Community: 3rd edition (3rd ed.). 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5 thoughts on “Facebook’s segregation of communities is fueling the destruction of democracy.”
This is a great article and I have really enjoyed reading about your thoughts on this issue.
Some of the points you mention I have to agree with and one of the points you raise is, “enabling communities to grow and deliberate on a variety of subjects and ideologies”
I like how you expressed Facebooks construction of ideological and idealistic virtual third space. I think citizens have turned to Facebook because they feel that they can express there views and talk about issues that affect them. Citizens feel that they can have the freedom of expression and join communities that they feel others will have the same views.
Let’s look at Trumps speech on Capitol Hill. This was the first time we really see how destructive a leader can be when partnered with social media and the influence they have. By looking at data analytics Trump was able to purposely target people with ideologies and who would fight for something they feel they believe in and finding a community that share the same ideologies. Trump was able to use patriotism and patriotic organisations along with nationalism ideologies to gather his supporters to capitol hill and to manipulate his supporters into thinking he deserved the presential leadership and a act of fraud has happened.
Trump knew what he was doing, and he adapted a political discourse analytical framework (Rochfort and Donnelly 2012, 190). This is a framework that politicians use and by using ideologies they can influence people. Trump took it to another level and caused deadly riots and without any consequences to himself. Where do you see the future of Facebook and if you raise political issues and cause further debates using communities within Facebook, what will be the outcome? Will there be consequences and how do we monitor these.
Does Facebook have to much power and control?
I have really enjoyed your article and by analysing the behaviours of social media platforms and I guess at what cost is your freedom of speech?
Araral, Eduardo, Fritzen, Scott, Howlett, Michael, Ramesh, M., and Wu, Xun. 2012. “Agenda-Setting and Political Discourse”. In Routledge Handbook of Public
Policy. David Rochefort and Kevin Donnelly, eds., 189-203. London: Taylor & Francis Group
Just to clarify my positioning on the matter, I believe Facebook is commended for enabling communities to grow and deliberate on a variety of subjects and ideologies, but they are detrimental to society. This because Facebook communities are predominately built up with people who possess correlating views.
Facebook’s platform provides a third space in which citizens have the freedom to express and join communities, but I don’t believe that it has much of a positive affect on the operation of democracy because of the phenomenon of echo chambers and the resulting polarization which is a consequence from communities’ compartmentalization. I believe that better democratic capabilities are found in real life discussions with people on a face-to-face basis – rather than the ability to select and choose an audience that possess the same rhetoric of inherit beliefs.
Trumps attempted coup at Capitol Hill is a great example of the consequences from social media’s effects of polarization. The event was the climax of a long running social media cocktail containing a fundamental community of supporters mixed with conspiracy theories, heightened sense of nationalism, and a radicalised narrative fuelled by the President’s delusional social media posts. The result was the manipulation of hundreds of people to mobilize and attempt to take over the US congress building, which almost saw the complete destruction of democracy in America. It’s a really good example that I wish I had used in my paper.
I think we are already starting to see the devastating consequences of social media around the Western world: from the rise of far-right political groups in Australia, the attempted revival of the Northern Irish troubles through disenfranchised youths and the delusional up-rise of anti-vaxxers and COVID deniers. Social media is the silent manipulator sitting in everyone’s front pocket.
The only way to monitor its affects is to sit back with a box of popcorn and watch as the human species self detonates a destructive societal explosive facilitated by a narcissistic dopamine dispenser that is hailed as the emancipator of oppression. In other words, we are buggered.
Yes, Facebook has way too much control. I recommend removing yourself from social media as soon as possible. I deleted all my social media accounts a few years back and have gained the incredible power to think for myself. It is truly enlightening.
As a Western society we continue to preach freedom of speech when we don’t even possess the freedom of thought.
What a great response and love your passion for this issue. I totally agree with you is to sit back and watch all this unfold. This is only the beginning and its very scary to think what will happen next. Trump has made politicians re-think the situation and he has made everyone think that anyone can be the president and other career politicians just can’t help the fact that has changed the world and citizens thinking. Have we gone backwards with ideologies and people thinking that they have the power to say anything? This is a situation where; we are going back in time with radical behaviours but with the influence of digital and technology affordances has made us investigate the future. I absolutely love your last phrase and that will sit with me. Are we going to be that controlled and following everyone else that your thought has been manipulated into something else without even knowing it? You think you will have the freedom but really you don’t
I think this is a rabbit hole we are going down. I have thoroughly enjoyed your discussion and your views. It’s very enlightening and I enjoy people making a stance on their views.
You’ve written a really comprehensive and insightful paper, and I definitely agree that social media is a dangerous mechanism for undermining democracy. Unfortunately, I think this goes largely ignored (or unnoticed) by many people – although the effects are certainly evident! It seems as though even something as seemingly innocent as a YouTube comment section has become a political battleground where people ridicule and attack anyone with any opinion simply because it is different to theirs. And actual platforms like Facebook and Twitter are, obviously, far worse; devoid completely of civil, democratic discourse.
Your first point about the very nature of Facebook facilitating the creation of categorical identities through algorithms and advertisement, is definitely intriguing to consider. To add to your argument, I think a worthy example to look into would be the alleged role of Russian bots and fake social media profiles in facilitating, advertising and rallying support for Trump in the 2016 US election. Supposedly, a multitude of Russian-based fake profiles across countless platforms posted socially/politically divisive material, from controversial topics to fake news stories, as to appeal to American users’ own confirmation bias and thereby garner increased support for Trump’s campaign (Justice & Bricker, 2019). Other fake posts were simply support for Trump to foster others to support him. On Facebook, alone, it has been claimed that these Russian posts were viewed by over 140 million US users – or potential-voters, as they may well have been (Justice & Bricker, 2019). I can’t say how truthful this example is, but the allegations alone are a terrifying example of how social media can impact democracy.
Furthermore, your example about Quattrociocchi, Scala and Sunstein’s study on spreading information to conspiracy theorist was likewise particularly interesting. I think it is worth considering whether without the ability for mass-communication that social media provides, and the algorithm-based tailored advertising it promotes, that these unconventional communities (e.g. conspiracy theorists, extremist political groups) would exist. Being minorities in the real-world society, they might not have had the capacity to unite and further amplify their radical opinions.
This all being said; do you think there could exist (or does exist / could have existed) a type of social media platform that actively supports democracy? Would extreme political polarisation still occur even if algorithmic advertising, personal information deposits, mass-communication facets, and etc, were removed?
And this begs the further question; is it beneficial to democratic debate when extremist political groups/individuals/echo-chambers are banned from these platforms? On one side, it would reduce the barrage of extreme alt-left and alt-right groups, but at the same time would paradoxically be diminishing the very purpose of democracy. It’s just a point to ponder, but any thoughts?
Thanks for the insightful read!
Justice, J., & Bricker, B. Hacked: Defining the 2016 presidential election in the liberal media. Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 22(3), 391. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.14321/rhetpublaffa.22.3.0389.pdf?casa_token=nJGahs5pIUAAAAAA:49ArfjLojQjsh_KwvcYRSANHJKuAIjy7hUKNyt5sHlupeJ4UgBnH8sGKwlahdWZF5ZTxI0rHe-O547jGVS4A9nKYBml56AxlVu34i-Uv0NY-TQWgEw
Hi Amelia, thanks for the response!
Social media’s influential capacity is certainly not discussed enough. The digital platform’s power to undermine democracy is an invisible and misunderstood evil that unknowingly invades the thought processes of everyday users. Its effect on society is becoming increasingly evident with the rise of diverging and radicalised ideologies seen throughout the western world. The sad reality is the fact that Facebook has been bestowed as the liberator from oppression through its exhibition of social advocacy to marginalised groups of people – when in an almost Orwellian double think, it is the primary fuel for the dismantling of rational discussion and eroding the operation of democratic deliberation.
There is an unbelievable number of ways which Facebook’s platform influences and indoctrinates its users. For this paper I wanted to remain focused on the platform’s segregation of communities as a fuel for the rise in polarization and inhibiting of democratic functioning. But I understand that some of the most prominent forces of influence come from: fake news/misinformation, algorithmic targeting (Pesce, 2017), political digital campaigning (Chadwick & Stromer-Galley 2016), psychographic analysis (CBSinsights 2018) and Russian and Chinese web brigades. (Sultan, 2019).
One of the biggest revelations of Facebooks malevolent operations was uncovered in 2018, with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It was exposed that Facebook collected massive amounts of personal information to build psychological insights into its users. Facebook then sold off this information to political marketers who created specifically targeted content to emotionally manipulate and dramatically influence people’s political views (during the 2016 US election campaign). This started a domino effect of political indoctrination, as the echo chamber induced communities were eventually overrun with radicalised fringe political beliefs. Almost akin to mass brainwashing (Pesce, 2017).
I believe conspiracy theories and alternative ideologies have always existed throughout human history, but the modern ability of mass-communication via the internet has exacerbated a surge in such ideological beliefs to exist and prosper (to the point where you have cult like followings of Qanon and anti-vaxers). Echo-chamber induced groups are breeding grounds for people to evolve their already embedded opinions by attaching themselves to content which conforms to pre-existing beliefs. Alternative and dissenting information is automatically rejected, so users dive headfirst down the never-ending rabbit hole of alternative and radical theories.
I believe Facebook is the biggest culprit when it comes to social medias continuing destruction of democratic abilities. Facebook has previous admitted that their platform is destructive towards democracy but seems to be unemphatic towards its participation in obliterating the free world (Ng, 2018) Twitter and other raw feed micro blogging sites have more democratic capabilities when it comes to dispensing information and citizen journalism. This is because these platforms are not implementing algorithmic ways of dispensing content and segregating users into like-minded communities. Though echo-chambers still exist through personal selected content providers (same could be applied for printed and broadcast news), the use of hyperlinks and hashtags allow trending topics to reach a wide audience which serves as a positive for democratic abilities.
Banning selected groups from using such sites would never be an option. First, because social media sites operate in the attention economy, it’s all about maintaining users attention to ensure continued revenue through advertisements. Second, because these groups will continue to congregate on other sites, such as 4chan, reddit and kiwi farms. And lastly, because eliminating certain people from participation is un-democratic and oppressive to freedoms of speech.
Facebooks full effect on society has yet to be seen.
CBSinsights (2018). What Is Psychographics? Understanding The ‘Dark Arts’ Of Marketing That Brought Down Cambridge Analytica. Retrieved from: https://www.cbinsights.com/research/what-is-psychographics/?utm_source=CB+Insights+Newsletter&utm_campaign=edbbf52f66-newsletter_general_Thurs_20190815&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_9dc0513989-edbbf52f66-93028145#data
Chadwick, A., & Stromer-Galley, J. (2016). Digital Media, Power, and Democracy in Parties and Election Campaigns: Party Decline or Party Renewal? The International Journal of Press/Politics, 21(3), 283–293. https://doi.org/10.1177/1940161216646731
Ng, A. (2018). Facebook admits social media is bad for democracy, sometimes. Cnet.
Pesce, M (2017). The last days of reality. Meanjin Quarterly. Retrieved from: https://meanjin.com.au/essays/the-last-days-of-reality/https://meanjin.com.au/essays/the-last-days-of-reality/
Sultan, O. (2019). Tackling Disinformation, Online Terrorism, and Cyber Risks into the 2020s. The Cyber Defense Review, 4(1), 43-60. Retrieved April 30, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/26623066