Digital media have become a significant element of the majority of people’s lives. Hardly any individual refrains from checking updates on a variety of social platforms many times during the day. Apart from the social component, such networks also present an opportunity to obtain data, become aware of news issues, and express one’s opinions on different subjects. In recent decades, the role of social media in formulating users’ attitudes toward democracy has increased considerably.
While some argue that digital social platforms serve as a basis for expressing views freely, others are concerned about the amount of disinformation being offered to users in the disguise of news. Among the negative implications of inaccuracies published on social media, a particular threat is posed to democracy. Despite providing opportunities for communicating and sharing information, excessive use of and trust in social platforms can lead to the destruction of basic principles of democracy.
The Role of Social Networks in Users’ Awareness of and Participation in Political Processes
Nowadays, one cannot possibly imagine spending a day without being exposed to a variety of pieces of news and information coming from different sources. Media, whether social or not, has become one of the most active actors in this process. The so-called Web 2.0 platforms, such as Twitter or Facebook, offer a favorable environment for online communication that contributes to the “reinvigoration” of the public sphere in which users are involved (Ellison & Hardey, 2014, p. 21).
According to Ellison and Hardey (2014), social networks have the potential to restore individuals’ participation in local processes. Hence, residents could become not only service consumers but also democratic actors through being actively engaged in their community’s or country’s political processes. Due to the possibility to remain in constant touch with other social media users, people can share opinions or comment on others’ expressions of ideas without any time or space limits. As a result, people are free to choose and discuss specific policies, policymaking strategies, and governance modes (Ellison & Hardey, 2014). This function of social media may be treated as a positive feature.
The active role of social media in shaping people’s political interests and attitudes has been emphasized recently. Ellison and Hardey (2014) remark that Web 2.0 played a “seminal” role in political protests organized in many countries (p. 22). However, scholars note that such events could hardly be referred to as the expression of democracy. Rather, social media are viewed as a means employed by local authorities to affect their citizens’ decisions and choices.
Gerbaudo (2015) refers to such use of media as the ways of mobilizing, organizing, and recruiting individuals. Hence, apart from exploiting social platforms for connection and communication, they may be employed for innovative ways of reflecting radical political views. For anti-globalization activists, social networks have become the means of creating independent self-managed platforms.
At the same time, for popular wave defenders, social websites swerve as an extensive medium of mass mobilization (Gerbaudo, 2015). In line with Ellison and Hardey’s (2014) innovative term Web 2.0, Gerbaudo (2015) suggests the notion of populism 2.0 that labels an ideological direction viewing social media as an approach to address people. These new concepts help to understand the media’s effect on democracy.
Unlike traditional populists, the activists of the 2.0 modification exploit social media instead of mass media to reach their purpose of addressing large numbers of individuals. Since the ideas of populism have some issues in common with democracy, one might assume that the emergence of innovative technologies has allowed activating democratic endeavors. Newly arriving parties and movements use social platforms to resort to a profoundly varied mass of people with the aim of organizing them against political elites (Gerbaudo, 2015).
According to Gerbaudo (2015), typical populism characteristics, such as demanding unity, seeking democracy, and being distrustful toward intermediaries, may be combined with the core aspects of social media’s ideology, including directness and interactivity. However, despite these efforts and achievements, it is not viable to consider that sharing populist views is the same as improving democratic ones.
Whereas many researchers consider that social media have the potential to involve people in political processes, there are also scholars who defend a contrary opinion. McChesney (2015) notes that the interconnection between communication, economy, and culture is so intense that modern users’ activity is twice as great as that during Information Age. However, along with the increased access to various media types, the interest of users in political processes has not risen.
McChesney (2015) notes that citizens’ engagement in political and social issues has fallen considerably. The scholar calls the contemporary era “increasingly depoliticized,” meaning that people’s political involvement is rather low (p. 2). Being free of governmental control, media are supposed to encourage democratic political views. Paradoxically, though, they have turned to be a “significant anti-democratic force” in the USA (McChesney, 2015, p. 2). Although the researcher focuses on all media in his book, it is reasonable to apply his observations to social media, in particular.
The role of social media in people’s lives is increasing, but their involvement in democracy does not seem to be enhanced by means of social platforms. It is undoubted that such websites support the right to free speech, but users are not highly interested in participating in political processes. Social media are used to mobilize people, but practice demonstrates that such mobilization largely results in revolts and protests rather than peaceful collaboration intended to find democratic resolutions to problems. In this respect, it is necessary to analyze the ways how Internet users exploit social platforms for consuming news.
News Consumption on Social Media
The advent of new technologies has increased users’ access to data and news. Newspapers, television, and radio programs have lost their dominance as news outlets to innovative sources of information. More and more people choose the Internet as a means of learning about events at local and global levels. Among other media types, social websites are gaining growing significance. Some scholars argue that the level of users’ trust in information varies depending on the source from which they get it. For instance, Ceron (2015) mentions that people have more trust in news websites than on social media ones when browsing updates on the world’s events.
The scholar notes that the appearance of Web 2.0 has provoked the argument over the level of freedom that the Internet has as a public sphere. According to Ceron (2015), consuming news from social platforms not only provides space for e-democracy but also enables a wider distribution of information. At the same time, the level of a positive relationship between the Internet and democracy is not clear.
The major reason why news consumption from social websites may cause distrust is that much data found there is not supported by verified sources. As a result, learning news from social media is likely to increase the possibility of seeing “antipolitical, antisystem” information that can lead to the absence of trust among users (Ceron, 2015, p. 494). Users are rarely presented with objective information on social websites. Hence, their level of faith, as well as their democratic endeavors, are likely to decrease upon regular news consumption from social platforms.
At the same time, statistical data indicates that the prevailing number of people learn news from their social websites. According to Pew Research Center’s findings, in 2017, as many as 67% of Americans acknowledged that they found out at least some portion of news from social media (Gottfried & Shearer, 2017). Moreover, every fifth user reported employing such practice quite frequently. Statisticians associate such findings with the increasing number of low-educated and old people.
As Center mentions, over 55% of Americans over fifty receive their news from social media (Gottfried & Shearer, 2017). Individuals younger than fifty are even more exposed to learning news from such sources: their percentage is 78%. Almost three-fourths of nonwhite citizens consume news from social websites, as well as 69% of individuals who do not have a bachelor’s degree (Gottfried & Shearer, 2017). Meanwhile, the use of social media among those with at least some academic degree has fallen.
Users’ interest in social outlets as news sources differs depending on a social platform. Research indicates that Facebook (66%) is the most popular website in this respect, followed by YouTube (58%), Instagram (26%), and Twitter (15%) (Gottfried & Shearer, 2017). Apart from the increased use of social media for getting news, Americans also report exploiting more than one social website for this purpose.
As of 2017, 26% of citizens looked through at least two or three social networks for news, compared to 18% in 2016 (Gottfried & Shearer, 2017). Therefore, while Ceron (2015) argues that people do not have trust in social media’s news issues, statistical data from Pew Research Center testify a high level of using social sites for news consumption. With this information available, it is crucial to consider the opinions on the effect of social media’s various functions on democracy.
Social Media as a Threat to Democracy
The most recent online magazine articles express deep concern over the detrimental effect of social media on democracy. Beauchamp (2019) gives an account of how Brazil’s new president was cheered by his supporters in January this year. Instead of shouting his name, the crowd repeatedly cried “Facebook!” and “WhatsApp!” By doing so, people demonstrated that the person they wanted to see as a president was selected largely due to the help of social platforms (Beauchamp, 2019). This occasion is not unique or rare in modern politics, opponents using social media as the means of upsetting each other’s reputation and boosting potential voters’ trust through various methods.
Social websites have become tools for manipulating citizens’ opinions, which a priori means a low level of democracy. Furthermore, powerful authoritarian foreign states are reported to have a great influence on the USA’s social platforms. As a result, they destabilize the USA’s democracy and deprecate protesters (Beauchamp, 2019). The 2016 US election is believed to have been an example of ill exploitation of social platforms to sabotage citizens’ trust in the independent media.
Hence, Beauchamp (2019) believes that while social websites can promote the development of democratic movements occasionally, by and large, they work for the benefit of authoritarian parties. As a result, it is considered that social media undermine democratic processes.
The role of destructive foreign powers is usually discussed in relation to Russia and China. Naughton (2018) notes that only two years after the election in the USA capable of discerning the character and level of Russia’s intrusion in America’s democratic processes by means of social websites. This information makes it evident that not only domestic interference but also obstacles created by other countries can have negative implications on the development of democracy. Much of the information offered on social media is false, and few users care to check its authenticity. Users receive more and more untrustworthy data, and gradually, they lose the possibility, to tell the truth from falsehood.
Among other breakthroughs in technology, the emergence of social media has altered people’s lives immensely. Modern Internet users can communicate with their friends round-the-clock, discuss vital issues, or exchange opinions on various topics. While all of these opportunities seem to increase democracy, it can hardly be said so. Numerous techniques are employed both at national and international levels to deceive citizens and make them consume false information. Although the level of data sharing is increased with the help of social media, they are not likely to be useful sources of promoting democracy. Hence, it is necessary to carefully evaluate the data coming from such sources and avoid becoming provoked by authoritarian actors.
Beauchamp, Z. (2019). Social media is rotting democracy from within. Vox. Web.
Ceron, A. (2015). Internet, news, and political trust: The difference between social media and online media outlets. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 20(5), 487-503. Web.
Ellison, N., & Hardey, M. (2014). Social media and local government: Citizenship, consumption, and democracy. Local Government Studies, 40(1), 21-40. Web.
Gerbaudo, P. (2015). Populism 2.0: Social media activism, the generic Internet user and interactive direct democracy. Social media, politics and the state: Protests, revolutions, riots, crime and policing in the age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, (pp. 67-87), New York, NY: Routledge.
Gottfried, J., & Shearer, E. (2017). News use across social media platforms 2017. Pew Research Center. Web.
McChesney, R. W. (2015). Rich media, poor democracy: Communication politics in dubious times. New York, NY: The New Press.
Naughton, J. (2018). Social media is an existential threat to our idea of democracy. The Guardian. Web.
Persily, N. (2017). Can democracy survive the Internet? Journal of Democracy, 28(2), 63-76. Web.