Please note: This essay was submitted 8 minutes late due to an issue with my laptop when originally trying to make the post prior to the November 8th due date. Please read my week 9 process post for more context on my unforseen issue that resulted in the essay being 8 minutes late.
Amid the upcoming 2022 United States midterm election, numerous antisemitic comments made by Kanye West, and the recent $44 billion purchase of Twitter by Elon Musk, much discussion has been had over the democratic nature of social media platforms and whether or not they are safe for disenfranchised people. Therefore, within the framework of this essay I will analyze the notion that social media promotes democracy. The conclusion this essay comes to is that social media is neither democratic nor undemocratic.
In our contemporary digital age, social media has become an integral resource that countless people utilize. The awareness and visibility that social media posts can garner makes these platforms essential for many social actors and institutions. For example: companies and corporations advertise their products and publicize their corporate image, celebrities foster awareness for their projects, and politicians mobilize their voter base. Therefore, notions that surround social media platforms being a positive impact on democracy are lent credence when evaluating these factors. However, as researchers Joshua A. Tucker, Yannis Theocharis, Margaret E. Roberts, and Pablo Barberá eloquently outline – what social media platforms inherently facilitate is open access to information thus democratizing the access to this important commodity (2017, p. 48). However, as aforementioned social media platforms among the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are neither democratic nor undemocratic. Accordingly, social media is a tool for political actors to battle for influence (Tucker et al., 2017, p. 48)
Before moving forward, it will be important to highlight factors that breed undemocratic discussions. Researchers W. Lance Bennett and Steven Livingston outline that in recent years – examples of the Brexit campaign and former American president Donald Trump’s social media communications have led to an increase in radical right movements and ideologies being spread in many nations via disinformation and fake news most prominently on social media (2018, p. 135). As witnessed on January 6, 2021, when Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol Building – these social media actions fundamentally threaten democracy. Moreover, this phenomenon has been connected to the widespread dissemination of violence and hate speech against minority groups (Bennett & Livingston, 2018, p. 135).
Additionally, the instance of antisemitic remarks made on October 8, 2022, by hip hop artist Kanye West on his Twitter account has led to an increase in hate speech towards Jewish people primarily circulated on social media (Paulson & Graham, 2022). This growing trend signifies how social media has made the circulation of this kind of hateful rhetoric easier and more prominent withing the modern zeitgeist (Paulson & Graham, 2022), thus ostracizing Jewish people from a potential democratic online space. According to researchers Skoric et al. (2018, p. 1098) as cited by Manuel Goyanes, Porismita Borah, and Homero Gil de Zúñiga, the filtering and curation processes of social media platforms essentially create echo chambers “where citizens tend to talk to others who hold similar political views.” (Goyanes et al., 2021, p. 1) Therefore, the people who engage in racist and antisemitic discussions on social media both algorithmically and organically coalesce to perpetuate their hateful ideologies.
Furthermore, it has been reported by journalists Drew Harwell, Taylor Lorenz and Cat Zakrzewski in The Washington Post that within the small timeframe that Twitter has been under the ownership of Elon Musk, there has been a surge in numerous Twitter accounts engaging in racist discourse on the social media platform; with many speculating this rise in bigotry stemming from Musk’s proclivity to criticize Twitter’s content moderation prior to his takeover (2022). Promptly after Musk took over Twitter, he fired the top executives at the company that he had conflicts with over their various approaches to managing the social media platform (Ortutay et al., 2022). One of these terminated executives Vijaya Gadde, the former Chief Legal Counsel at Twitter was bombarded with racist and misogynistic harassment amidst her clash with Musk (Ortutay et al., 2022). This instance highlights the influence Musk has on the radical right social media demographic and how they can be mobilized to harm the democratic process by inciting violence and hatred.
As clearly articulated above, social media can be deployed by political/social actors to achieve goals that threaten democracy or contribute to an undemocratic space for disenfranchised minority groups. However, despite this social media manages to be a strong defence against nondemocratic autocracies due to the information that can be conveyed by international journalists that illuminate pressing issues in other nations (Tucker et al., 2017, p. 49). An instance that highlights this surrounds the recent protest in Iran. As reported by The Associated Press, The Iranian government’s strict dress code imposed on women subsequently led to the morality police brutally murdering Mahsa Amini for allegedly violating this rule (2022). What resulted from this was countless protests in the nation and unrest as demonstrators clashed with the nation’s security and paramilitary forces (The Associated Press, 2022). In hopes of hurting the protest movement, Iran’s government shut down internet access to citizens and subsequently led to Instagram and WhatsApp outages, essentially enacting censorship on the people of Iran (The Associated Press, 2022). However, the news quickly spread around the world due to the viral social media attention which has helped garner support for the protestors. In the days since, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations have all condemned her death (The Associated Press, 2022). This case in Iran illustrates Tucker et al. assertion that “when unrest challenges nondemocratic regimes, social media’s ability to convey information shines.” (2017, p. 49)
Hopefully over the course of this essay, I was able to effectively articulate Tucker et al. assertions that informed my conclusion – that social media is neither democratic nor undemocratic. Instead, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are full of social and political actors that utilize social media as a tool to achieve democratic or undemocratic goals. Examples provided above illustrate how certain individuals utilize social media to directly harm democracy or contribute to an undemocratic space for disenfranchised minority groups. On the other hand, social media can be used to fight back against tyranny from nondemocratic autocracies by highlighting information that they wish to censor from the global audience. This coalesces into the notion of social media’s effect on democracy.
Bennett, W. L., & Livingston, S. (2018). The disinformation order: Disruptive communication and the decline of democratic institutions. European Journal of Communication (London), 33(2), 122–139. https://doi.org/10.1177/0267323118760317
Goyanes, M., Borah, P., & Gil de Zúñiga, H. (2021). Social media filtering and democracy: Effects of social media news use and uncivil political discussions on social media unfriending. Computers in Human Behavior, 120, 106759. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2021.106759
Harwell, D., Lorenz, T., Zakrzewski, C. (2022). Racist tweets quickly surface after Musk closes Twitter deal. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/10/28/musk-twitter-racist-posts/
Ortutay, B., Krisher, T., O’brien, M. (2022). AP sources: Musk in control of Twitter, ousts top executives. The Associated Press. https://apnews.com/article/elon-musk-twitter-inc-technology-business-san-francisco-ee1e283ff873813524ff21b0a7751b47
Paulson, M., & Graham, R. (2022). Between Kanye and the Midterms, the Unsettling Stream of Antisemitism. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/04/us/kanye-antisemitism-midterms.html
Skoric, M. M., Zhu, Q., & Lin, J.-H. T. (2018). What Predicts Selective Avoidance on Social Media? A Study of Political Unfriending in Hong Kong and Taiwan. American Behavioral Scientist, 62(8), 1097–1115. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764218764251
The Associated Press. (2022). At least 9 killed as Iran protests over woman’s death spread. The Associated Press. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-iran-dubai-united-arab-emirates-5897d601151beb0f01353dd83e405d7d
Tucker, J. A., Theocharis, Y., Roberts, M. E., & Barberá, P. (2017). From Liberation to Turmoil: Social Media And Democracy. Journal of Democracy, 28(4), 46–59. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2017.0064