How do social media platforms impact democratic participation? Research Associate Jérôme Duberry and Research Assistant Sophia Mo comment on a segment of our interview with Pierre Rosanvallon on the nexus between new technologies and democracy.
While this marks the fifth and final sequence of our research team’s weekly commentaries on this interview, we invite you to learn more about our research pillars and associated projects. These include a focus on ‘Democracy, media, and knowledge production in the digital age’.
Commentary by Jérôme Duberry
In this enlightening interview, Rosanvallon illustrates brilliantly the profoundly ambivalent nature of social media platforms, which on the one hand "universalize the opportunity to speak" while raising "completely new issues of organization and filters".
Citizens have indeed numerous platforms to express their views directly, without the intermediation of traditional gatekeepers such as the press or political parties. Large social movements and civil society organizations benefit from affordable and user-friendly coordination and outreach tools to influence various policy-making and political processes. From the Arab Spring to the Gilets Jaunes to cite two well-known examples, social media platforms have contributed to citizen participation in-between elections and what he calls faster timescales.
Social media platforms often claim to empower citizens' participation and help connect people. They do, but as Rosanvallon argues, not only. They also trigger "filter" concerns.
With the avalanche of data and content produced by individuals and organizations, most individual contributions are inaudible. Rosanvallon identifies the need for democracies to develop new forms of "organization of speaking". This is what online platforms' algorithms intend to accomplish: they select the content most relevant for each user. However, they also favour the fast dissemination of easy to digest and sensationalist information with limited possibility of counter-argumentation by filtering the content and favouring echo chamber development.
Their objective is indeed not "the organization of speaking", but to be a proxy for data collection and surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2019). They constitute a private and profit-oriented form of governance that commodifies citizens' attention to brands and political parties based on the systematic collection of personal data. Van Dijck and Poell (2015) describe the "platform society," where social media commercial mechanisms transform public and private communication. Facebook is indeed a platform with dominant commercial features designed at the expense of users' freedom to interact (Heyman and Person, 2015).
Recent elections in liberal democracies have illustrated the danger of granting social media platforms the almost exclusive role of building communities. They can contribute to "ever more divisive political debate" (Jenkins, 2006, 216). Hence, algorithms of online platforms simultaneously provide a form of "organization of speaking" and a counterforce to this "organization of speaking" and, consequently, a counterforce to democracy. In this context, it is the time to develop innovative, public and open-access alternatives to "organization of speaking". This only will enable us to avoid what Rosanvallon "democracy of cacophony".
Heyman, R., & Pierson, J. (2015). Social media, delinguistification and colonization of lifeworld: changing faces of Facebook. Social Media+ Society, 1(2).
Jenkins, H. (2006). Fans, bloggers, and gamers: Exploring participatory culture. NYU Press.
Van Dijck, J. and Poell, T. (2015) "Social media and the transformation of public space." Social Media+ Society 1, no. 2: 2056305115622482.
Zuboff, S. (2019) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power: Barack Obama's Books of 2019. Profile Books.
Commentary by Sophia Mo
Technological innovations have brought upon the democratization of public opinion. As pointed out by Pierre Rosanvallon, public opinion had always been in a sense routed and conveyed through well-known individuals. These “thought leaders” typically came from elite economic, intellectual, political, and social circles. However, with the advent of social media technologies, anyone with access to a digital device and internet connection can now easily share and disseminate his or her views. Moreover, while the flow of information through print and broadcast media is usually confined to a one-way stream of communication with limited avenues for feedback, social media technologies by contrast allow not only the immediate and unfiltered feedback from the audience but also the simultaneous streams of communication from and among various sources of information.
The discourse carried out through these social media technologies arguably enhances the prospects for more democratic participation, considering that direct communication between ordinary citizens and their representatives in public office is now more accessible. This democratization process, however, also opened a Pandora’s Box. While social media technologies empowered the general public to actively partake in the democratic discourse, the deluge of content available online has also blurred the line between news on the one hand, and opinion or commentary on the other. Moreover, in countries where free and independent news media is virtually absent and the digital literacy of the population is low, people often find it difficult to verify content and distinguish credible news from dis/misinformation. Whereas previous generations of audiences have relied on traditional news media outlets (i.e., print and broadcast) as their trusted sources of information, the proliferation of information sources online has made it harder for the current crop of audiences to find the information sources they can trust. The overarching outcome is what Rosanvallon calls a sense of anomie or atrophy from which populism feeds on and thrives.
How can democracy move forward from its current state of cacophony to one that is geared towards the construction of a community? According to Rosanvallon, social media discourse has to find organizational forms, filters, and aggregation mechanisms. While I agree that democratic power is best exercised if organized, more clarity is needed from Rosanvallon as to what organizing mechanisms he has in mind for a more constructive online discourse. So far, groups and communities formed online have only encouraged confirmation bias and created echo chambers of like-minded individuals. It does not help at all that the algorithms employed by social media companies to monitor user-behaviour and moderate the types of content that will show up on individual news feeds have only served to provide users with information that they might be interested in. Consequently, social media users are inundated with content that only reinforces their opinions and interests, thereby isolating them from “other” content that do not necessarily match their likes, posts, shares, and tweets. Not surprisingly, the discourse online becomes increasingly polarized with partisan groups refusing to consider opinions that differ from theirs. This polarization is further amplified by bots and troll accounts that spread false and misleading information online.
Admittedly, there is a need for the condensation of opinions online as suggested by Rosanvallon, but to whom does this duty belong? The gatekeeper role in society used to be entrusted to traditional news media. However, the myriad of information sources online has made it increasingly difficult to identify which information comes from credible news media outlets. Populist rhetoric denouncing media bias and elitism has also led to the distrust of the traditional news media.
Do we expect social media platforms to take over the gatekeeping function of traditional news media? Rosanvallon’s remark that “social networks” are not the media resonates well with Facebook’s argument that it is a technology company and not a media company. However, social media is, for better or for worse, the media of the current times. Recent measures by social media companies to flag or demote false or misleading content are also evident of their assumption of editorial functions. Nonetheless, the regulation of online speech is far too important to be left to the discretion of social media company executives.
Inasmuch as the democratization of public opinion has brought us to a state of cacophony from which populism sprouted, it has also led us to confront the unfulfilled promises of democracy and the elitism that has plagued our institutions. The challenge of transforming online discourse to constructive outcomes remains but with the right resolve, civil society can unleash the democratic potential of these technological innovations to widen the scope of the ordinary citizens’ participation in public decision-making.
Business for Social Responsibility, Human Rights Impact Assessment: Facebook in Myanmar, 05 November 2018.
Scandal, outrage and politics – Do social media threaten democracy?, The Economist, 04 November 2017.
Who controls the conversation – How to deal with free speech?, The Economist, 22 October 2020.
Richard Edelman, Chapter 4: Why has trust in government and media declined? in Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy’s “Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America” (2019), The Aspen Institute.
Anthony Gooch, Bridging divides in a post-truth world, OECD Yearbook 2017.
Sophia Mo is a Research Assistant to Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression and AHCD Distinguished Fellow and Research Associate.