Is social media in charge for the violence on the U.S. Capitol?
In a 2017 article in the Journal of Democracy, we answer this question with two observations. First, social media is a tool to give a voice to those who are excluded from access to mainstream media. Second, those who use social media can censor and manipulate information in an attempt to silence the voices of others, even though social media democratizes access to information. Some of these forms of censorship – such as obstructing access to information or threatening potential opponents – are centuries old. Others – like using bots and trolls to change online conversation – are specifically addressing the digital age.
Taken together, these two factors – the use of online tools to expand the ability to speak and expand the ability to remain silent – can shed light on the complex relationship between social media and democracy. We conclude that social media itself is neither inherently democratic nor non-democratic, but another arena in which political actors struggle for power.
A new hope: liberation technology
First, let’s look at autocratic societies. Who is excluded from the mainstream media in such countries? While it is important to remember that many forces can be excluded (including many that may be anti-regime but still illiberal themselves), this category undoubtedly includes pro-democracy forces.
Social media can help these opposition actors figure out how to work together and solve what political scientists refer to as “collective action problems”. Future democrats can find each other, find hidden support for democracy, connect with like-minded citizens, coordinate political planning, and organize direct political actions such as protests – all without the aid of state media and sometimes without being spotted by the state surveillance.
But if pro-democracy forces can find out, so can the regimes they target can find out.
The empire strikes back: repression technology
Autocratic regimes, in the face of online opposition, have several options for countering these threats.
One way to characterize these different options is to think about how the social media user experiences them. The regime can perform offline reactions, e.g. B. intimidating or arresting opposition activists, changing the ownership structure of media companies, or adapting liability laws that the social media user may never see directly. The regime can also start online responses: restrict access to content that the user may or may not directly notice; or engaging with online content to shape the online preservation that the user will definitely experience.
One of us (Roberts) categorizes these strategic options in her upcoming book, “Censored: Distraction and Distraction in China’s Great Firewall” as the “three Fs” of censorship in the digital age. Fear is censorship through intimidation, which can include incarceration, physical harm, loss of livelihood, and so on. Friction is censorship that makes it harder to find information by removing content or slowing down access, including removing social media posts, rearranging search results, or slowing down web pages. Flood censors contradict views by loading the online space with pro-regime messages or simply adding spam or noise, making it harder to find the opposition’s message.
What matters is that this “inundation” – or the attempt to shape the online conversation – comes from new digital tools. One of them are fully automated online accounts that are controlled by algorithms also known as bots. Another concerns people – so-called trolls – who spend a lot of time online, either out of conviction or in exchange for payment, in order to divert the attention of opponents of the regime in the context of astroturfing campaigns or to get the image of broad support for certain ideas, guidelines, regimes and so on . While these tools have been skillfully used by autocratic regimes, they can also be used in and against democracies.
Return of the anti-systemic forces: turbulent technology
Now let’s consider how social media can work in democracies. Who is likely to be excluded from mainstream media access there? This could include progressive forces spreading news that the mainstream media generally ignores, such as Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter.
However, it can also include fundamentally illiberal groups that speak out against the fundamental principles of liberal democracy. These groups – be it white nationalists, neo-Nazis or the so-called “old right” – can use the same features of social media that pro-democracy forces have in autocratic regimes. They too have the ability to find like-minded people who may not be geographically close and who can work together on collective policies.
In addition, these illiberal forces can also use the tools developed by autocratic regimes: fear and flooding, aided by trolls and bots.
While autocrats use these tools to counter online opposition to the regime, illiberal actors in democratic societies can use these tools to attack political opponents, supporters of democracy and even democratic values and norms. The openness of the internet can therefore be used to reinforce these illiberal voices by making their supporters appear more numerous online than they actually are, by promoting coverage in the mainstream media and taking opponents offline.
The Law Awakens: Restricting Technology?
What’s next? An important question is whether and how democratic societies employ legal regulations to limit this emerging threat. As this debate continues to unfold, an understanding of exactly how social media threatens and supports democracy will be critical to ensuring that policy changes have their desired effects. Democracies need to be aware that any attempt to regulate the internet can be dangerously close to the censorship they deride in autocracies. For example, it’s probably no coincidence that Russia was one of the first countries to copy the new German law that threatens fines for social media companies that don’t adequately restrict online hate speech online.
Yannis Theocharis is Assistant Professor at the Center for Media and Journalism Research at the University of Groningen.
Margaret E. Roberts is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California at San Diego.
Pablo Barberá is an Assistant Professor in the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California.
This article is part of a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance, which aims to work together to improve our understanding of how to use new technologies and new methods to shape more effective and legitimate democratic institutions. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the network are responsible for the specific content of the article. More articles in the series can be found here.