How Far Does The Growth Of Social Media Extend or Threaten Democratic Processes?

22nd August 2017 / United Kingdom
How Far Does The Growth Of Social Media Extend or Threaten Democratic Processes?

By Democratic Audit: Social media technologies (such as blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram) have brought about radical changes in how the media systems of liberal democracies operate. The platform providers have become powerful actors in the operation of the media system, and in how its links to political processes operate. Yet at the same time these companies claim political neutrality, because most of their content is created by their millions of users – perhaps creating far greater citizen vigilance over government and politicians. As part of our 2017 Audit of UK DemocracyRos Taylor and the Democratic Audit team look at how well the UK’s social media system operates to support or damage democratic politics, and to ensure a full and effective representation of citizens’ political views and interests.


The growth of social media – and its wider consequences for the web – have been seen in rather different ways. On the one hand, easy to produce content and low-cost internet communication helps citizens in myriad ways to organise, campaign, form new political movements, influence policy-makers, and hold the government accountable. Social media can also ‘disintermediate’ the conventional journalist-run and corporate-owned media. In 2008, Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody set out a vision in which self-publishing meant ‘anyone can be a journalist’. Yashcha Mounkpoints out that social media ‘favours the outsider over the insider, and the forces of instability over the status quo’.

A populist discourse rationalising such changes argues that the mainstream media (‘MSM’) has stifled debate on issues that matter to ‘ordinary’ citizens. This pattern was observable in the EU referendum campaign (when the Leave campaign derided ‘expert’ opinions and urged people to ‘take back control’) and in the United States (where Donald Trump sought to bypass most media outlets in favour of direct communication at rallies and on social media). Some left critics also share the sentiment. Citing the LSE’s study of negative representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British press, Kadira Pethlyagoda describes a ‘chasm between the masses and the elites, represented by the out-of-touch MSM, [that] threatens not only democracy and justice, but also stability’.

On the other side of the debate, new social goods, especially those that disrupt the established ways in which powerful interests and social groups operate, often attract exaggerated predictions (or even ‘folk panics’) about their adverse implications for society. Social media inherently present a double aspect, because they are run by powerful platform provider corporations (Facebook, Twitter, Google, and WhatsApp). Many seek to ‘wall in’ millions of users within their proprietary domains. Yet at the same time almost all the content they carry is generated by their millions of users, using free speech rights to communicate about the issues that matter to them. So while the platform providers might seem oligopolistic in the way that they carve up the social media market, and in the enormous corporate power they have acquired relative to other companies, especially conventional media corporations, they can still claim to be politically neutral and competing bitterly for customers – hence standing outside conventional media regulation provisions.


Recent developments

 In the realm of news and current affairs, the recent growth of social media in the UK has shrunk the audience for free TV bulletins. For the BBC, the change means UK viewers can watch and consume TV news on PCs or smartphones, without paying the licence fee. At the same time, the readerships of most paid-form/print daily and Sunday newspapers has also fallen, although some Sunday titles and the free Metro are exceptions. Newspaper publishers must either rely on existing readers recommending their content, or pay to advertise on social media – even as digital advertising revenues fail to live up to publishers’ hopes. Thus social media are widely seen by journalists and others as posing an existential challenge for legacy publishers. (See our chapter on the ‘mainstream’ media system).

For a growing proportion of people, particularly among the 18-34 year-old demographic, online news reports represent their chief source of news. While many people use apps to follow the news, a growing number rely on stories shared via Twitter and, in particular, Facebook.

Chart 1 also shows that people value the ability to directly monitor what their political representatives and candidates are doing, and social media offers an easy way to do so. Currently 18 per cent of all UK citizens follow a politician. In the case of councillors or even MPs, social media commentary is often the first thing to draw politicians’ attention to causes and public concerns that do not reach the constituency surgery, council meeting or email inbox. The ability for people to click their concurrence and comment in their own terms helps indicates the breadth and depth of public feeling on a particular issue.


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Chart 1: Why people follow politicians on social media

chart 1

Notes: Question was: ‘You say you follow a politician or political party via social media, what are some of the reasons for this? Base: All who follow a politician or political party on social media: USA, UK, Germany, Spain, Ireland, and Australia = 2671.

Source: Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017


How social media users behave

Many social media critics rest their objections on claims that they change the behavioural dynamics of information markets in adverse ways. The ability to ‘like’ and ‘follow’ like-minded individuals on social media, together with Facebook’s use of algorithms that present news and posts based on a user’s existing preferences, has led to fears that people increasingly obtain their news from a self-reinforcing ‘filter bubble’ of similar opinion. On the day after the Brexit referendum the web activist (and ‘remainer’) Tom Steinberg posted:


‘I am actively searching through Facebook for people celebrating the Brexit leave victory. But the filter bubble is SO strong, and extends SO far into things like Facebook’s custom search that I can’t find anyone who is happy despite the fact that over half the country is clearly jubilant today and despite the fact that I’m actively looking to hear what they are saying’.


Relatively few social media users will ever look outside their bubble, and they may not now be able to ‘pop’ it and reach broader views, even if they wanted to.

In the social media world, the key metric of successful content is its ability to generate retweets or FB ‘likes’. Chasing the advertising revenue that a ‘viral’ piece or video can generate has led some media publishers to produce ‘clickbait’ – sensationalist headlines that tempt the readers to click through to that story in preference to others on the page. While a great deal of clickbait content is celebrity or lifestyle journalism, some of it relies on distorted and sensationalised news stories. The editor of the Guardian describes this practice as ‘chasing down cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy and veracity’.


Fake news 

The term ‘fake news’ is inevitably subjective and contentious. In some instances it is difficult to draw a clear line between the kind of partisan reporting long apparent in the British media and fabricated stories. Ulises Mejias argues that to insist on a clear distinction between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news ‘bypasses any kind of analysis of the economics that makes disinformation possible and indeed desirable’ in Western democracies. However, as discussed in our media chapter, increasingly globalised media ownership has opened up opportunities for powerful actors and state-funded operations to influence democratic debate abroad. Leaked US intelligence which claims Russia used online fake news to influence voters suggest that the phenomenon is a growing threat to the legitimacy of elections in the West. In his analysis of electoral manipulation across the world, Ferran Martinez i Coma notes a move away from ballot-stuffing and towards media manipulation. The chairman of the Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport has described fake news as ‘a threat to democracy’ that ‘undermines confidence in the media in general’. One notable development in the UK has been the ability of far-right groups such as Britain First to disseminate their message on social media under the guise of entertainment.


Threats to female politicians and activists

Misogyny on social media remains a problem (Demos), despite the introduction of stricter rules by Twitter. The MPs Yvette Cooper, Jess Phillips, Stella Creasy, Diane Abbott and Anna Soubry have also reported misogynistic and racist abuse. Social media harassment has been the subject of numerous other complaints by female politicians and activists, especially at the 2017 general election. A 2016 Demos study suggests that women users are equally as responsible as men for originating misogynist threats. In 2014 a man and a woman were given prison sentences for threats posted on Twitter to feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez. ‘Trolling’ and ‘stalking’ women or ethnic minority politicians clearly inhibits their  freedom to develop and express opinions and debate on Twitter and other social media, and so represent a threat to democratic discourse online. Other forms of misuse of social media – such as the bullying of vulnerable school students by others – can easily have tragic consequences. Yet while the effective regulation of the new media spaces to outlaw hate speech is clearly important, platform providers (many of whose founders espoused socially libertarian ideas) have frequently been reluctant to self-regulate their content effectively, and help state authorities do so externally (except in the case of clearly illegal material, such as encouraging terrorism or promoting suicides).


Hyper-local social media

A more positive trend has been the development of hyperlocal news models, which may partly offset the rapid decline of paid-for local newspapers across the UK. The new approaches continue to evolve, with the ease of making micro-payments offering the possibility of a revenue stream (albeit not necessarily an easy or sustainable one).

Nor are hyper-local media necessarily amateurish. Around half of the citizens producing hyperlocal news across the UK have some form of mainstream journalistic experience. Andy Williams notes that hyperlocal news usually privileges the voices of community groups and members of the public, whereas the traditional local press ‘are very authority-oriented in their sourcing strategies’. But most outlets depend heavily on volunteers: ‘Despite the impressive social and democratic value of hyperlocal news content, community news in the UK is generally not a field rich in economic value’. So he concludes that for all their valuable efforts, unpaid and part-time news producers ‘can only very partially plug growing local news deficits’. A Cardiff University initiative has sought to support hyperlocal and community journalism by offering online training and funding advice, chiefly in Wales, where it has identified a particular democratic deficit. The scope for supporting hyperlocals through training and funding initiatives such as audience co-operatives is considerable.



Social media clearly offers unprecedented opportunities for voters to debate and scrutinise public policy, albeit on terms heavily conditioned by platform providers, and in a constant ‘arms race’ with the development of industrialised/professionalised social media campaigning by companies and large vested interests. For good – and sometimes ill – social media allow politicians to communicate directly with citizens, enthusing the electorate and reinforcing their bond with supporters. As a tool for influencing and holding the political class accountable for their actions, it may ultimately prove as powerful as the press itself, which increasingly relies upon social media channels to reach younger people.

The blooming of multiple voices enables those who have traditionally been on the fringes of debate, such as disabled citizens, to make their voices heard. However, it also opens a channel for extremists and news outlets with motives going far beyond conventional partisanship to embrace attempts to skew and undermine democratic debate itself. Because of the ability of users to choose whom they follow and exclude unwanted or dissenting voices, some critics see social media as lending itself to conspiracy theory and fake news. The fact that strongly-held (sometimes abusive) opinions are so visible on social media risks alienating people from the ‘normal’ political process and increasing social polarisation, undermining political valence.

So it is questionable whether the current main platforms are fit for purpose either in terms of the transparency of their monitoring policies (and the extent to which they co-operate with governments for security purposes), or their ability to foster democratic deliberation and thoughtful social learning. The hegemony and ubiquity of these platforms may be nudging people towards new kinds of political behaviour that will only become fully apparent in years to come.


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