Democracy is a core value of our society; it is our system of governance at all levels, and one would hope and assume that this translates to the rest of our social reality. This essay explores the notion that social media platforms are democratic, ultimately exposing how this notion is flawed.
The underlying conceptions about what ought to make social media democratic is that it ought to give a platform to all to be heard – from citizens to representatives to policy-makers, deliberation could be “afforded by the new information and communications technologies” (Loader & Mercea, 2012). On a surface level, this idea of an equal playing ground for democratic discussion appears logical; with platforms available to the public, the public can have a voice. The public, however, does not actually have equal access to the Internet. Consider this: does someone of affluence, who is well-educated and grew up in the digital-age have the same level of access to the Internet as an older impoverished individual who has not afforded to attain literacy? Surely, the answer is no. Access to the Internet and social media platforms is riddled with social inequalities, just as is every other aspect of our society.
Following this reality of social inequality, technology experts maintain that “elites’ control over technology systems gives them new tools and tactics to enhance their power, including by weaponizing technology;” therefore, “democracy is at risk because those with power seek to maintain their power by building systems that serve them, not the masses” (Anderson & Rainie, 2020). Those with social, political and economic power aim to maintain and further their power by continuously reproducing inequalities that serve them and further subjugate those who are marginalized. These inequalities are fabricated through systems of oppression that were created by the ancestors of the elites. These systems are deeply rooted in society and translate from the material world to the digital world, as the elites maintain a monopoly of power over media.
Another proposition of the empowerment that the Internet gives to the masses is that “social media facilitates the swift spread of information, allowing citizens to easily get around government censors. Social media allows rapid communication among large groups of disparate people, giving citizen activists new tools for organizing actions” (Beauchamp, 2019). Senior correspondent at Vox, Zach Beauchamp, maintains, “this theory turned out to be partly true: It can be difficult to simply repress the spread of information on social media. But as we’ve come to discover, it’s equally difficult to repress the spread of disinformation. The core feature of social media that gives it democratic promise, the rapid spread of information, can be used against democracy via information overload” (2019).
Further, “a savvy person or political party looking to discredit online critics doesn’t need to ban their speech to hamstring it. Instead, they can respond with a deluge of false or misleading information, making it very hard for ordinary citizens to figure out what’s actually going on” (Beauchamp, 2019). This tactic is used by the far-right to exploit digital illiteracy (Beauchamp, 2019; Anderson & Rainie, 2020). Moreover, “citizens’ lack of digital fluency and their apathy produce an ill-informed and/or dispassionate public, weakening democracy and the fabric of society” (Anderson & Rainie, 2020). Due to this, there are calls for quality control over the content that is disseminated on social media (Moore, 2011).
While it may seem as though social media is democratic in its accessibility and expeditiousness, experts prove that it is disproportionately those with power who have access to control over the media (Anderson & Rainie, 2020). Likewise, there is a disproportionate amount of false information that is shared on social media, which therefore weakens the cohesiveness of legitimate information (Beauchamp, 2019; Moore, 2011). This false information is often spread by the right-wing to co-opt the potential of social media to act as a tool of social activism, taking control of it to maintain and multiply their privilege which social activists aim to dismantle.
Imbalanced power dynamics are deeply embedded in society; those with power maintain their power through corrupted systems that were unjustly created by their ancestors. Further, social media maintains a hierarchy of power relations through the reproduction of social inequalities, such as classism, and fallacies, such as a lack of critical thinking. Democracy, therefore, is damaged by the control that the elites have over digital technologies and medias. The injustice of power imbalances spans across all aspects of social reality, including, and to what experts may say especially, in the realm of the digital-age and social media.
Anderson, Janna and Lee Rainie. “Themes about the digital disruption of democracy in the next decade”. Pew Research Center. Feb 21, 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/02/21/themes-about-the-digital-disruption-of-democracy-in-the-next-decade/.
Beauchamp, Zack. “Social media is rotting democracy from within”. Vox. Jan 22, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/1/22/18177076/social-media-facebook-far-right-authoritarian-populism.
Loader, Brian D. and Dan Mercea. “Social Media and Democracy: Innovations in participatory politics”. Routledge Research in Political Communication. 2012. ISBN: 978-0-415-68270-8.
Moore, Andrew. “Speed, democracy, free accessibility… and quality?: Social media, quo vaditis?”. Wiley Periodicals. 2011. Retrieved from: https://doi-org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1002/bies.201190029.