Some would argue that technology is neutral and the real effect of it is decided by the people who are using it and by what means.
However, internet, seems to be born with some democratic features. It is the print technology of our age, allowing millions of people to have access to unlimited news resources with low costs and rights to publish their opinions online. The decentralization feature of Internet significantly filled the information gap, which is formed by the inequity of social and economic difference between the elite and grass roots. Social media goes further by adding a network of nodes and functions such as retweet, comment, share, etc. to form a public sphere in the online world to discuss everything and form a dynamic sphere of conversations.
We have witnesses how this democratic feature gave people rights to express, communicate and discuss such as the #METOO movement, discussions about elections. The disruptive force is challenging the old media world (Chadwick, 2017), with the openness and fluidity it brought to public opinions. With the pressure from online public opinions, the government, officials or social norms began to change and evolve. This is exciting from the point of view of civil society that every citizen can be a part of a public discourse and make the society change to a better direction as a whole.
However, there are some major disadvantages and limitations of this online participation of public discourse. First of all, when the democracy brought by social media gives those advanced and progressive petitions a chance, it also gives opportunities to those malicious, slanderous and fake news to grow significantly. The anonymity of online discussion reduced the cost and possible punishments of publishing extreme ideas or hateful opinions. As a result, many people didn’t use it as an instrument for rational discussion but a place to give vent to provocative emotions and negative feelings.
Secondly, as Tettey (Tettey, 2017) stated, the discussions online may also erode some of the essential elements of deliberative politics, such as thoughtful and well-considered exchange of ideas. The conversations on social media are near to talks rather than organized debate or statements, which can potentially increase the possibility of random voices rather than deep-thinking. The fast pace of posting and replying don’t give those old-fashioned debate much time. At the same time, there is a risk that people will take politics not serious any more when informal discussions are flooding the public space.
Lastly, coming back to the fundamental relationship between present political paradigm and social media, the latter is sending voices under the background of the authority. Some authors argue that the social media is just sending voices that are allowed by government to become part of the mainstream voice (Wasserman, 2011). The democracy brought by mobile phones can never transgress the authoritative paradigm. Censorship is everywhere because every government has bottom line of what can be said or can be known.
Though there are many limitations of this platform, it has brought democratic or at least participatory democracy to citizens. Technology is there in our life, both everyday and political, such that we can’t stop or get away from it any more. Ultimately, the health and high-quality political participation relies on the political literacy of all citizens but not the social media itself.
Chadwick, A. (2017). The Hybrid Media System : Politics and Power (2nd ed., Oxford studies in digital politics). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Tettey, W. (2017). Mobile telephony and democracy in Ghana: Interrogating the changing ecology of citizen engagement and political communication. Telecommunications Policy, 41(7-8), pp.685-694.
Wasserman, H. (2011). Mobile phones, popular media, and everyday African democracy: Transmissions and transgressions. Popular Communication: The International
Journal of Media and Culture, 9(2), 146–158.