We asked three academics to address the question of whether social media is democratising or eroding democracy.

Great democratic potential

It’s tempting to dodge this question by arguing technologies don’t determine our politics, or equivocating with a feeble ‘both-sides’ answer. To make these disingenuous arguments, one might adapt Kranzberg’s first law, “technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral”, to say: “social media is neither democratising nor is it eroding democracy; nor is it neutral.”

This makes sense because new technologies, especially things as vast and various as social media, have uneven effects in different places and different moments. Social media is used not only by people organising for just causes but also by trolls sabotaging conversation for sport and by tyrants surveilling and propagandising the most vulnerable among us.

Likewise, social media isn’t a single, specific tool. They’re multiple technologies, industries and cultures that have specific histories and are in ongoing development by flawed humans (especially white men) in peculiar contexts (especially Silicon Valley).

At its best, social media serves our sincere desires to connect with each other – as friends, families, lovers, citizens – but social media corporations are legally bound as publicly traded companies to serve shareholders’ needs first and foremost. Their business model is not to support reasoned discourse and other democratic processes. Their business model is surveillance: extract data and use it to develop and sell products like targeted advertising and propaganda as well as new artificial intelligence-based services. We might use existing social media for democratic purposes, but only in limited and roundabout ways, because these systems were simply designed to do something else. This should not be surprising. Why would we expect corporations to build and maintain expensive infrastructures that we could trust to hold democracy together? It is much easier – and more profitable – to ‘disrupt’ or sabotage democracy than to nurture it.

One way forward – fraught, but still possible – would be governments and not-for-profit institutions supporting the development and maintenance of new social media designed for social justice.

Social media has great democratic potential but this will likely be corrupted and squandered as long as the platform’s raison d’être is to enrich distant shareholders.

Dr Ethan Plaut is a Lecturer in Communication at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in computational media, digital journalism and propaganda and media ethics.


Flooding the world with opinions

The topic raises the question of whether social media is influencing the way we, as a country or as a society, are governed. If we agree that “democracy is a system of government where the citizens exercise power by voting”, which may be done though formalised elections, referenda or other ways of expressing an individual point of view, the immediate answer to the question is therefore that social media is increasing democracy. However, the meaning of the question is whether social media overall is increasing the quality of governing societies or smaller groups. Unfortunately, I think, social media is decreasing that quality.

In the past, during the pre-digital era, voicing opinions was expensive, in financial terms. If you wanted to spread your point of view, you had to pay for it or find a sponsor. This, in a natural way, limited the number of opinions circulating in the public domain. As a result, it was difficult to spread any individual ideas. Today, flooding the whole world with ideas is practically free. Anyone may circulate their point of view freely, including those who hold very radical views. By the law of statistics, there will always be some who agree with these ideas, even to the level of springing in to action. Science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem expressed it this way: “Before using the internet, I was not aware that there are so many idiots around the world.”

The world’s reaction to the recent attacks in Christchurch supports that. World public opinion condemned the shooter, but in many countries there were voices heard supporting him. Social media is a vehicle for spreading such radical views because the old rule of publishing says: “It is not news when a dog bites a man, but it is news when a man bites a dog.”

The management of social media systems assure us that they are working hard to limit the spread of radical ideas. But their financial model is, unfortunately, against them: cutting ideas would reduce the number of subscribers, resulting in fewer advertisers, which are the lifeblood of social media.

Bruce Schneier, in his book Click Here to Kill Everybody, suggested replacing the current internet with a limited access (paid?) internet. That might solve the problem, but tell that to shareholders of social media networks.

Dr Lech Janczewski is an Associate Professor of Information Technology at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in information security (cyber war, cyber terrorism, cyber crime).


Media as DNA for social systems

When I wrote Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World, I meant it as a warning about how mediated messages of blame and hate can at times mean life or death. Genocidal frames of Rwanda, the Holocaust and Bosnia were able to turn friends, even family members, into deadly enemies. Hate frames in Chile contributed to societal chaos and justification for a military coup. Now, with the rise of social media and the internet, these messages can spread unmitigated faster and wider than ever before.

But it does not have to be this way. Media messages can also promote deep understanding, reconciliation and peace processes, as they have done at various times in history, including in Northern Ireland and Burundi.

Granted it is not only on journalists and media. These deeper messages that promote greater understanding of our social and natural world require leadership from all sectors – politicians, civil society and media professionals.

It is on all of us to advance deeper truths – on journalists to recognise and disseminate truths that may not emerge from their normal sources, to look beyond attention-grabbing soundbites and headlines that give rise to cheap, fleeting emotions that feel good for a moment but beg for greater intensity. It is on governments to reconsider the political structures and purposes of media and ways in which to usher in a more enlightened age. And for us, as civil society, to reject fake framing of “us versus them,”

“good guys versus bad guys” and “politics as a game” and instead recognise these as frames that have been imposed on us through fabricated ideas about how the world works. It is also on us to tell our politicians what we want. These are responsibilities that come with democracy and in our information age. Citizens must advise, media must inform, politicians must listen.

Media are like DNA for social systems, offering us the codes, information and ideas by which we organise ourselves. They offer glue for modern societies – common reference points, events, meanings, frames and social laws that guide our thinking and behaviour. When the information is flawed, like a mutant gene in our DNA, the system can malfunction.

Given rapidly changing technologies that can harm masses of people, such as a deadly virus containing vial intentionally leaked at an airport, we have no choice now but to build a better media and a better society.

Dr Maria Armoudian is a Senior Lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Auckland. She is an expert in media and politics. 

This article was originally published in the Autumn Edition of Ingenio and was republished with permission. For the original, click here.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the participants and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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