Dashed Hopes: Why Aren't Social Media Delivering Democracy?

In 2015, popular government seems to be receding globally. With the qualified exception of Tunisia, the Arab Spring did not transform dictatorships into democracies, and democratic governments seem unable to find consensus solutions to many pressing policy questions.
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Four years ago, in the months following the Arab Spring, hopes ran high that the growing use of social media would bring a flowering of democracy throughout the world. Facebook and Twitter had helped dissidents drive tyrants from power in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. In established democracies, citizens' groups -- most notably, the Tea Party in the U.S. -- were influencing politics by leveraging social media. Indeed, a Forbes cover story on the power of social media concluded that "the world is becoming more democratic and reflective of the will of ordinary people."

Sadly, such optimism proved ill-founded. Now, in 2015, popular government seems to be receding globally. With the qualified exception of Tunisia, the Arab Spring did not transform dictatorships into democracies, and democratic governments seem unable to find consensus solutions to many pressing policy questions. What happened? Why haven't social media made the world more democratic?

In seeking an answer, we can begin with nature of democracy itself. Because a country's citizens have competing interests and values, their effectively governing themselves through elections of leaders and other democratic processes requires deliberation. It requires that citizens and their representatives discuss and debate what the government should or should not do, defending their views by appealing to shared principles and purposes. As one scholar, Daniel Gayo-Avello, recently observed, "Deliberation is crucial in modern democracy ... Proper democratic deliberation assumes that citizens are equal participants, opposing viewpoints are not only accepted but encouraged, and that the main goal is to achieve 'rationally motivated consensus.'" Political philosophers Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, in their influential Democracy and Disagreement (Belknap, 1996), point out that "the demand for deliberation has been a familiar theme in the American constitutional tradition. It is integral to the ideal of republican government as the founders understood it. James Madison judged the design of political institutions in part by how well they furthered deliberation."

To be sure, "deliberative democracy" is an ideal to which existing democratic systems only roughly approximate. Nevertheless, the concept provides a plausible standard for evaluating democracies. Moreover, it reminds us that the health of a democracy depends in large part on its fostering deliberation that leads to policies whose legitimacy most citizens accept. Hence, the impact of social media on democratic deliberation may help explain why they have not brought about a new global era of democracy.

The issue here is the political power of social media, and it entails three key questions: What power do they confer? Who possesses that power? How do those who have the power use it?

First, the power of social media is evident. Functionally, it is the ability to communicate, instantaneously, with a large number of people. Politically, it is the power to inform or misinform, to engage or manipulate, to mobilize or control. In general, it is the power to affect, directly and on a vast scale, the political beliefs and actions of citizens.

Second, when the government controls social media, this power is in its hands. When the government does not control social media, its political power belongs to citizens who can access them and is exercised by groups of like-minded individuals who use them to organize and coordinate political activities.

Third, as for how the political power of social media is wielded by those who possess them, recent history gives us some salient examples:

  • Protesters using them in organizing mass demonstrations against oppressive governments during the Arab Spring;
  • the Chinese government's allowing critics of public officials and policies to "vent" online but tightly censoring calls for collective action;
  • the Russian government's employing its immense digital propaganda machine to convince many Europeans that the CIA shot down the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine;
  • the Islamic State's utilizing social media to recruit disaffected Muslim youths from around the world;
  • in 2008, the Obama campaign's innovative application of social media to raise record amounts of money from small donors and customize its messages to different demographics;
  • the use of social media by an impassioned minority of Americans angry at "big government" to form and advance the Tea Party movement.

In all these cases, social media were -- or are -- used as political weapons. Of course, I am not implying moral equivalence in these examples. My point is that the political power of social media has been used most effectively in adversarial contexts -- in circumstances of struggle or competition. In those cases, the regime, organization, or group holding the power uses it against individuals, groups, or institutions whose interests or goals conflict with theirs. Consequently, whether they are revolutionaries, totalitarian governments, candidates for office, or special interests, political partisans using social media as tactical weapons are not concerned about deliberation.

Who, then, cares about promoting democratic deliberation? It is citizens and leaders who understand that democratic processes necessitate deliberative disagreement and, in the legislative process, negotiation and compromise. However, when these advocates of democracy look to social media to establish and strengthen democratic processes, they encounter a basic problem: social media appear unsuited to serve as forums of political deliberation. Research into online behavior suggests several reasons:

  • Users tend not to seek opportunities to engage in serious political dialogue with people whose views differ from their own. Rather, as social media expert Curtis Hougland notes, "people choose to reinforce their existing political opinions through their actions online."
  • A recent Pew Research Center report offers evidence that people are much less willing to post their political views on social media when they believe their followers would disagree with them.
  • Daniel Gayo-Avello has found that "when political discussions occur they are not rational and democratic deliberations ... [because] political information in social media generally lacks quality and strong arguments, is usually incoherent and highly opinionated."

To these I would add some intuitions of mine:

  • When people who have strong political opinions avoid engaging opponents in reasoned debate but have them bolstered by social media followers, they tend to become more rigid in those views -- and so, are even less interested in democratic deliberation.
  • As a result, political partisans connected through social media tend to oppose legislative compromises on their pet issues, demanding that elected representatives they support "stand on principle," regardless of political realities or the common good.
  • Finally, perhaps because using social media is, physically, a solitary activity, it tends not to cultivate civic virtues -- such as respect for opponents -- that Gutmann and Thompson argue are critical to democratic deliberation.

In short, with regard to political discussion, current use of social media favors affinity over engagement, expression over debate, silence over disagreement, dogmatism over compromise, and -- toward opponents -- disdain over respect. This, I believe, is largely why we have so far been unable to move beyond the use of social media as political weapons to make them instruments of deliberative democracy.

This essay is a version of remarks presented to a session of the Pacific Council on International Policy, October 10, 2015. It follows up on my 2011 Blog post, "Can Social Media Undermine Democracy?"

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