by Matt Hammar
Since the bulk of our society began adopting the Internet in the 1990s, it has been anticipated as being the most influential innovation to the democratization of authority since the printing press. Through such an evolution it was predicted to bring with it a profound shift from that of vertical to horizontal authority. The main focus of this article will be how social media has not only fulfilled this destiny, but also allows for this democratization of authority even when considering its formable pitfalls.
Social media predominantly are net positive in regard to their impact on the public sphere. The term “net positive” is specifically chosen because social media does foster some negative effects with the way information is created and disseminated, but there are clear and practical benefits that stem from social media. Firstly, there is the new empowerment of the average person for civic action. Essentially, social media is democracy in action as it allows for anyone to now have a voice and influence the discourse within their society the way they see fit.
Communication scholars such as Jürgen Habermas would argue that this is the next major stepping stone to creating a world-wide ‘public sphere’ due to instantaneous and undisturbed messages with relatively little ‘noise’ interfering. Social media is this public sphere manifested in a relatively tangible virtual realm—an online coffeehouse of billions, if you will. Social media, and the Internet in general, allow for this because as Kriess (2012) notes, “with the lowered cost of producing and disseminating political communication, ‘the Internet is creating a more open and fluid political opportunity structure’’’ (Kriess, pg. 197, citing Chadwick, 2011, pg. 3). Further, as outlined by Benkler (2006), it also becomes far costlier for authoritarian countries to control these opposition entities whether they be full-fledged groups or simply individual citizens.
Additionally, such a medium can—and often does—make the average citizen feel more connected to those in positions of power. Previously, the average person could never conceive of directly communicating with a politician or person of celebrity status until the advent of social media. This may inspire them to be more involved in society where previously they were apathetic about their situation due to the feeling they had no agency in their political or social realm, resulting in no attempts to change the situations they disapprove of. Now, via the Internet, politicians and public figures are held responsible by the wider public on social media, instead of awaiting legacy media to do it for them in the name of the public.
As described by Benkler (2006), each individual contribution to the Internet is “independently created and stored [. . .] [and is used] as an ‘information service’, it is highly modular and diversely granular” (pg. 103). As such, the various independent content creators and others that upload information are contributing to the formation of a “vast almanac, trivia trove, and news and commentary facility, to name but a few, produced by millions of people at their leisure—whenever they can or want to, about whatever they want” (ibid.). Using the ‘magic’ that are modern search engines, individuals can search the Internet and find what they are looking for in the blink of an eye.
The negative result of such a system, as previously hinted at, is that due to algorithms users of social media tend to be connected to those that hold a similar opinion, causing it to function as an echo chamber. In such an echo chamber, it becomes increasingly difficult for new and differing ideas to be properly introduced and discussed in a rational and practical setting. As such, it extremifies the tribalism that already persisted on a smaller scale prior to the rise of social media and may only function to worsen such negativity. Supplemented by the increasing usage of ‘fake news’, these echo chambers often promote fanaticism and intolerance to those that they see as their opponents based off of misleading and deceitful information.
What many forget though, is that the domains where these individuals voice their opinion (e.g., YouTube) are mediums that rely on the traffic and active sharing of content for it to be seen by others. This means that it is up to a vast amount of people in the public sphere to be sharing this content to disseminate these messages. It is not simply one person forcing everyone to pay attention to their views—it is through simple voluntary action from all of the viewers of a viral video to make it viral in the first place. If we do not believe in the public sphere, that “individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action”, then we essentially relinquish hope for our society and accept the tyranny of the majority.
Benkler, Y. (2006). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. The Yale Law Journal. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from http://www.benkler.org/Benkler_Wealth_Of_Networks.pdf
Kreiss, D. (2012). Acting in the Public Sphere: The 2008 Obama Campaigns Strategic Use of New Media to Shape Narratives of the Presidential Race. Media, Movements, and Political Change, 33, 195-223. doi:10.1108/s0163-786x(2012)0000033011. https://danielkreiss.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/kreiss_actinginpublic1.pdf
Public Sphere. (2018, March 03). Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_sphere
Tyranny of the Majority. (2018, February 28). Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyranny_of_the_majority