Over a century ago, the common practice to get a message across was to go to the middle of the town, stand on a soapbox and orate, with the idea that everyone in the town would hear you. Now, in the 21st century, social media does that for you (The Economist, 2020), and even expands people’s reach, getting messages across further. Social media provides a unique form of democracy to people all over the world. On the vast variety of platforms, most people are given a voice if they choose to have one. It is therefore democratic in the sense that it provides users with the opportunity to express their thoughts and beliefs. Some believe that social media provides a sense of absolute equality. For example, as Suler (2004) pointed out, there is an area of “minimizing authority” (para. 14) that exists online and on social media. To elaborate, as someone who has various online platforms including Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, and my own blog, I am able to share my own thoughts, feelings, and ideas with any of my followers who want to listen. In theory, my thoughts and opinions are, or should be, on an equal playing field with all other users. However, people who have more followers than me and who are public figures, will likely have a stronger influence and a larger following than me. As Kreiss (2015) stated, “while there is no guaranteed right to be heard, and communicative hierarchies take shape in these spaces, social media provide the means for spectators themselves to shape public discourse” (p. 2). Furthermore, social media allows people to choose what they want to hear and choose what they don’t’ want to hear (Kreiss, 2015). Therefore, while it exists as a democratic space, there are other issues that come with it, as in any democracy.
Social media has also become a space where people get their news and information. As Tucker et al. (2017) mentioned, “according to data from the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of U.S. adults now get their news via social media, while the 2016 Reuters Institute Digital News Report shows that 46 percent of Europeans use social media for news” (p. 49). This illustrates not only the way in which social media is a democratic space, but also the way in which it influences politics. With this influence comes the adverse side of social media as a space of democracy. As Margetts (2019) stated in her article, “[social media platforms] are held responsible for pollution of the democratic environment through fake news, junk science, computational propaganda and aggressive microtargeting and political advertising” (p. 107). With the recent election occurring in the United States, there were many opinions on social media coming from both sides. To elaborate, the left expresses their concerns with the conspiracy theories circling social media regarding “…QAnon to the incitement of white supremacists… [while] the right accuses the tech firms of censorship…”, an example being the accusations of the corrupt Biden family during the presidential election (The Economist, 2020, para. 2). Due to this, the various social media platforms are now attempting to “…set the boundaries of free speech… [as] right-wing sources often top lists of the most popular items on Facebook and Twitter” (The Economist, 2020, para. 4).
While the intention behind social media is that it is a democratic and accessible space for all, various platforms “…allow acts of misinformation, hate speech, abuse, threats, extremism, radicalisation and even terrorist influence…” (Margetts, 2019, p. 111). Margetts (2019) described that there are many implications that come with social media as a democratic space. For example, “echo chambers”, “fake news”, “computational propaganda”, and “hate speech” (Margetts, 2019, p. 111-112) are also aspects that exist on social media that challenge democracy. Is this a true democratic space for all, when there is a sort of inequality that exists? Echo-chambers are self-explanatory in the sense that people online will surround themselves with others who have the same opinion as them (Margetts, 2019). Furthermore, fake news and propaganda are similar in the sense that they perpetuate false information (Margetts, 2019), which is popularized through algorithms and people end up believing. Additionally, hate speech is similar in the sense that minority groups are discriminated against (Margetts, 2019) and not given a rightful voice on the platforms. These are the primary problems with social media as a democratic space, and unfortunately the various platforms enable these behaviours. Tucker et al. (2017) pointed out that “Twitter, with its 140-character limit per tweet, is not only poorly suited to fostering nuanced discussion, but also can be used to undermine basic tenets of the democratic public sphere” (p. 53). In a study done by Jha and Kodila-Tedika (2019), they identified that “…the correlation between social media and democracy is stronger for low-income countries than high-income countries” (p. 271). What does this say about how North American’s utilize the social media platforms? Perhaps people could argue that a sad reality of democracy in North America is that inequity is inevitable, no matter the environment.
The debate of whether or not social media provides true democracy will continue. “Social media has the potential to foster democracy in various ways” (Gil de Zúñiga, Huber & Strauß, 2018, p. 1174). However, while the various platforms provide people with the space to express their opinions, there are ways in which the authority is taken away. Ultimately, “social media have the potential to aid democratic movements by spreading information, reinvigorating participation, and facilitating collective action” (Tucker et al., 2017, p. 50). However, it is up to the various companies to ensure that their platforms aren’t being used in inequitable ways that allow hate speech and provocation to prosper, and instead give users the democratic space where users are on an equal playing field. As Tucker et al. (2017) mentioned “Facebook’s hiring of a large number of content reviewers to address these challenges, and Google’s implementation of machine learning to help in removing extremist content, suggest that companies are beginning to acknowledge their responsibility in fighting the spread of extremist ideas through online networks” (p. 56). It is hard to say if this will ever be the case, however, social media platforms provide their users with a unique democratic environment nonetheless, despite the problems that exist within. In essence, democracy as it manifests itself on social media mirrors democracy in our society.
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The Economist. (2020). How to deal with free speech on social media. https://www.economist.com/leaders/2020/10/22/how-to-deal-with-free-speech-on-social-media
Gil de Zúñiga, H., Huber, B., & Strauß, N. (2018). Social media and democracy. El Profesional de La Informacion, 27(6), 1172. https://doi.org/10.3145/epi.2018.nov.01
Jha, C. K., & Kodila-Tedika, O. (2020). Does social media promote democracy? Some empirical evidence. Journal of Policy Modeling, 42(2), 271–290. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpolmod.2019.05.010
Kreiss, D. (2015). The Networked Democratic Spectator. Social Media + Society, 1(1), 205630511557887. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305115578876
Margetts, H. (2019). 9. Rethinking Democracy with Social Media. The Political Quarterly (London. 1930), 90(S1), 107–123. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-923X.12574
Suler, J. (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 7(3), 321-326. doi:10.1089/1094931041291295. http://truecenterpublishing.com/psycyber/disinhibit.html
Tucker, J. A., Theocharis, Y., Roberts, M. E., & Barberá, P. (2017). From Liberation to Turmoil: Social Media And Democracy. Journal of Democracy, 28(4), 46–59. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2017.0064