How social media platforms have changed democracy by providing democratic spaces for dialogue?

Aristotle once said, “Democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.”

Today, we are all in the Digital Age where democracy seems to be always around us. By capitalizing on social media uses, most of us could easily acquire and disseminate all sorts of information related to societies world-wide; of course, we could express our own views and have discussions with others as well. We all appear to possess “ruling power” to a certain extent in the social media world, so are we now fostering democracy as indigent users (aka. rulers)? In fact, we may seldom ponder over the reliability of the sources we consume, the power that our unintentional sayings might have in the media world, and the quality of democratic spaces that these platforms offer. In this essay, I would like to consider this topic from the perspective of a person involved in the creation, dissemination, and curation of digital content, so as to evaluate social media platforms’ effectiveness in providing democratic spaces for dialogue.

Let’s talk about the creation of digital content first. The social media kind of liberates us, we are able to voice out our opinions and publish what we think through the usage of words, images, videos, etc. In terms of creating democratic spaces for dialogue, social media platforms enable individuals, no matter what age group or social class you belong to, to have a greater voice. As these voices congregate, it’s become easier for dialogues to take place since like-minded people could gather to form social groups and befriend with each other, while those with opposite views could carry out debates and exchange ideas. It has been found that Information and Communication technologies like social media platforms could contribute to the creation of a sense of community through their “online discussion forum” features; such as chat rooms, message boards, text/instant messaging, and links to the webring of affinity groups[1]. Moreover, our brains often release a kind of hormone called Oxytocin when we partake in social media, which is related to caring and bonding within relationships[2]. Therefore, the use of social media also fosters democratization by bringing us empathetic experience too.

However, the downside is that the inevitable echo-chamber-effect. On social media platforms, we tend to follow pages and communicate with users that share common values, which may make us become more or less biased by constantly absorbing information from one side; the social circle is always the same circle. Things would become even worse if users start to believe that messages around them always represent the mainstream or the truth, causing prejudice. If the information in the echo room is constructive, then, of course, it is a good thing; but more often the effect is negative, which often appears in social movements and politics, people from the circle fail to accept different opinions. To avoid this problem, we must try our best to situate ourselves in an environment that contains different voices, don’t easily unfriend or block friends who have different stances with you on Facebook, and try to follow different news sources.

As active social media platform users, we also disseminate digital content. For instance, after reading news posts, we often assist with the dissemination of content through intentionally sharing functions, while unintentionally our instinct reactions such as “likes” and “comments” would spread what we’ve seen to users attached to us too. According to the PEW Institute, in 2018, about two-thirds (68%) of Americans get news on social media, while what social media news consumers like most about getting news on social media is about its convenience[3]. It’s quite a lot of people, but yet understandable. Social media simply feeds us with unlimited news, the good thing is that people may read more news from now on; but are there any hidden dangers behind that might hinder democracy? The dangers are obvious, one of which is the issue of false news. We should never underestimate the negative impacts of fake news, to simply take an example from Australia. There was a false news story claiming that the first Muslim woman to be a Member of Parliament had refused to lay a wreath on the national day of remembrance, this led people to flood her Facebook Page with insulting comments[4]. That’s how online bullying, public shaming or even further personal threat could gradually take its shape.

Furthermore, we are in charge of the curation and highlighting of digital content too. We filter what we read, add our own meanings and keep the most meaningful, or urgent issues on social media platforms; very often we could make dialogues more democratic by giving attention to issues or people that originally remain unheard. For instance, we may together give voice to communities who were in the past, excluded by traditional media institutions because of their color, sexual orientation, geographical locations, etc. Social media platforms could play the role of advocating democracy by making dialogues more inclusive and fairer, offering a channel for those excluded by the news – whether through censorship. As in Tunisia, protesters were visible to the world through Facebook even the Tunisian government had barred journalists from doing coverage, videos from Facebook successfully made their way[5].

Now we’ve talked about censorship, and it’s still prevalent in some countries. Like in China, social media platforms like Google, Facebook, Instagram are all blocked and couldn’t be accessed through usual ways. As a Hongkonger, who could observe this scene quite closely, I could say that the country’s concern really fits the sayings from the book “Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall,” as the “three Fs” of digital-era censorship, it’s a “fear” style of censorship; a “friction” censorship that makes it harder to find information by content removal; and “flooding” censorship by loading up the seemingly democratic space by pro-regime messages[6]. These are hardships that the social media world that we normally know are still facing and could conversely undermine democracy.

All in all, we can see that social media platforms as spaces for democratic dialogues are double-edged swords; when we enjoy the huge benefits and improvement, we also bear some unpredictable and hard-to-control difficulties. Whether it’s democratic or not, depends on the users, which means us.


[1] 1.   Spinner, M. (2012). “The Effects of Social Media on Democratization.” Retrieved from

https://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1109&context=cc_etds_theses

[2] ibid.

[3] Shearer, E. & Masta, K. (2018). “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2018.” The PEW Institute. Retrieved from https://www.journalism.org/2018/09/10/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2018/

[4] Chakrabarti, S. (2018). “Hard Questions: What Effect Does Social Media Have on Democracy?” Retrieved from https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/01/effect-social-media-democracy/

[5] Zuckerman, E. (2018). “Six or Seven Things Social Media Can Do For Democracy.” Retrieved from

[6] Cage, M. (2017). “This explains how social media can both weaken — and strengthen — democracy.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from

References:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/12/06/this-explains-how-social-media-can-both-weaken-and-strengthen-democracy/

  1. Cage, M. (2017). “This explains how social media can both weaken — and strengthen — democracy.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/12/06/this-explains-how-social-media-can-both-weaken-and-strengthen-democracy/
  2. Chakrabarti, S. (2018). “Hard Questions: What Effect Does Social Media Have on Democracy?” Retrieved from https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/01/effect-social-media-democracy/
  3. Shearer, E. & Masta, K. (2018). “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2018.” The PEW Institute. Retrieved from https://www.journalism.org/2018/09/10/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2018/
  4. Spinner, M. (2012). “The Effects of Social Media on Democratization.” Retrieved from https://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1109&context=cc_etds_theses
  5. Zuckerman, E. (2018). “Six or Seven Things Social Media Can Do For Democracy.” Retrieved from http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2018/05/30/six-or-seven-things-social-media-can-do-for-democracy/