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Future Prospects – “SoMe4Dem” And How Social Media Can Damage or Strengthen Democracy

Different social media buttons on a smartphone display.
Photo : AdobeStock/ltyuan
Social networks can pose an extreme threat to democracies, but they can also support them.

Fake news, manipulation, and opinion mongering – social media has made it easy to blur the lines between facts and opinions and influence public opinion on a massive scale. And this could be dangerous, and on a massive scale. That is why Stephan Lewandowsky has launched a project that has been investigating since January 2024 how social media influence democracy. “’Social media for democracy – understanding the causal mechanisms of digital citizenship’ is a comprehensive and interdisciplinary project: The researchers come from the fields of philosophy, political science, computer science, mathematics, network science, and cognitive science, like myself.” Lewandowsky is a visiting professor at the University of Potsdam and holds the Chair of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol in England.

The project is based on two observations: On the one hand, democracy is on the decline in many countries around the world – including in the EU and the USA. “This is a serious problem,” Lewandowsky says. “On the other hand, a look at the role of social media or online technologies in these problematic trends shows that they are – at the moment – not conducive to democracy. That is quite worrying.” Many people in so-called Western countries are currently being polarized by the platforms, and trust in democratic institutions is declining. This development depends in part on what information is made available to people via social media. Control over this has partly been handed over to a few tech billionaires in Silicon Valley. “This is exactly where our project starts: We are trying to find ways to improve, to recommend ratings, assessments, and reviews. In other words: How can we design algorithms that present information to people in a newsfeed? And without compromising the quality of the information,” Prof. Lewandowsky says.

This has not been the case so far. Current information systems are more concerned with keeping users on the platforms for as long as possible. “At the moment, the online ecosystem is what we call an attention economy. This means that when you are on Facebook, for example, advertisers effectively buy your attention.” This is also ultimately a threat to democracy, as the algorithm and the way it works are not public and the decisions that users can make are made within the context set by the online platforms. The approach of the research group: They want to establish so-called exogenous variables that can be used to determine the quality of information as independently of content and audience as possible. To do this, they analyze, for example, how websites are networked with each other, whereby, roughly speaking: the larger the network, the higher the quality of the information. Although Prof. Lewandowsky believes that social media can seriously damage democracy, he also sees positive trends: In so-called developing countries, social media can be used to spread knowledge about democracy, which will strengthen it.

The Researcher

Prof. Stephan Lewandowsky, PhD, is Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol and Visiting Professor at the University of Potsdam.
Email: Stephan.Lewandowskybristol.acuk

The Project

SoMe4Dem: Social media for democracy – understanding the causal mechanisms of digital citizenship.
Participants: Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science e.V. (coordination), Leipzig University, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, University of Potsdam, Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia (Italy), Universiteit van Amsterdam (the Netherlands), Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium), Fondation Nationale Des Sciences Politiques (France); Partner: University of Bristol (Great Britain)
Funding: European Union / Horizon
Duration: 03/2023–02/2026


This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - Eins 2024 „Bildung:digital“ (PDF).