Since its inception, social media has become an integral part of society. Social media and citizen participation have created a digital space where people remain connected through the spread of information. Media platforms allow for control to be exercised by its users- creating a democratic space for dialogue. Unfortunately, democracy within social media also prompts destructive aspects such as fake news, polarization, and hate speech. These concerns beg the question of whether social media networks should compromise aspects of their democratic platforms.
Social media networks have significantly changed the way society shares news, allowing users to share and receive information in an instant. In 2006, Twitter’s main innovation was the timeline, which Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell describe as, “a constant stream of 140-character updates that users could view on their phone… a new way of consuming information.” (Haidt & Rose-Stockwell, 2019) In today’s digital age, anyone in possession of technology and social media can be deemed a ‘publisher’. The ability to post and view content freely has rendered media users vulnerable to receiving and sharing fake news. Research reveals that “Tweets containing falsehoods reach 1500 people on Twitter six times faster than truthful tweets.” (Langin, 2018). Julie Posetti and Cherilyn Ireton suggest, “the spread of disinformation and misinformation is made possible largely through social networks and social messaging, which begs the question of the extent of regulation and self-regulation of companies providing these services.” (Posetti & Ireton, 2018). If media platforms enforce fact-checking on posts, the question of whether social media is truly a democratic space is challenged. However, if media companies continue to allow free-range of content dissemination, false information will circulate.
Like fake news, society has seen a rise in polarization since the inception of social media. The democratic nature of social networks- the ability to post candidly and engage with users of diverse beliefs- has proven to drive polarization. O’Hara and Stevens propose, “the widespread consumption of information on social media platforms that were designed for people to express themselves freely, fairly, safely and to make informed decisions, may induce polarization of attitudes with consequent impacts on behaviour.” (Qureshi et al., 2017). Research suggests when social media users engage with online topics that contrast their beliefs, the outcome is an even stronger opposition towards those beliefs. This is demonstrated in a study that instructed Democrat and Republican social media users to follow a Twitter bot that exposed them to messages from those with different political ideologies. The results concluded that “Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot became substantially more conservative post-treatment.” (Bail et al., 2018). These findings suggest that social media, even as a democratic and diverse platform, is not strengthening users’ understanding of different points of view, but rather fuelling polarization.
Social media serves as a useful democratic platform for sharing thoughts and ideas until hateful dialogue leads to violence in the real world. As Catherine O’Regan & Stefan Theil point out, “hateful messages and incitements to violence are distributed and amplified on social media in ways that were not previously possible.” (O’Regan, 2018 & Theil, 2019). Although the amount of negative online commentary is pervasive, “one of the dangers of regulating hate speech online is that it will become a pretext for repressive regimes to further limit the rights of their citizens.” (O’Regan, 2018 & Theil, 2019). Social media platforms have been slow to censor hate speech, as it could compromise the principles of democracy and freedom of expression. Meanwhile, “Social scientists and others have observed how social media posts and other online speech, can inspire acts of violence.” (Laub, 2019). Most recently, we have seen the effects of hate speech through an angry social media campaign that resulted in the beheading of a French teacher. Samuel Patty received scrutiny after showing his students cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a civics class while discussing the limits of free speech. An angry father of a student in Patty’s class, “used social media to turn a dispute over the civics class into a campaign against the teacher.” (Pailliez, 2020). Samuel Patty’s killer, heard about the teacher’s controversial lesson through social media, thus provoking his plan to murder. While online platforms aim to keep their network a democratic space by protecting users’ right to Freedom of Expression, hateful and hurtful content is circulating and causing grave repercussions.
While social media facilitates core aspects of democracy: diversity, universality, and freedom of expression, important issues such as the circulation of fake news, polarization, and hate speech are often overlooked. Society urges for online platforms rooted in democracy, yet these same democratic principles are what precipitates misinformation, social and political division, and violent crusades. Social media must alter several democratic principles by fact/source checking information before it is disseminated, monitoring online polarization, and censoring hate speech. These changes must not surrender media democracy entirely, but rather compromise aspects of users’ control to create a more credible, understanding and safe online environment.
- Haidt, J. & Rose-Stockwell, T. (2019, December). The Dark Psychology of Social Networks: Why it Feels Like Everything is Going Haywire
- Langin, K. (2018, March). Fake News Spreads Faster Than True News on Twitter- Thanks to People not Bots
- Posetti, J. & Ireton, C. (2018). Journalism, ‘Fake News’ & Disinformation: Handbook for Journalism Education and Training
- Qureshi, I, Bhatt, B, Gupta, S & Tiwari, A. A. (2020). Call for Papers: Causes, Symptoms and Consequences of Social Media Induced Polarization (SMIP). Information Systems Journal
- Bail, Christopher A. & Argyle, Lisa & Brown, Taylor & Bumpus, John & Chen, Haohan & Hunzaker, M.B. Fallin & Lee, Jaemin & Mann, Marcus & Merhout, Friedolin & Volfovsky, Alexander. (2018). Exposure to Opposing Views Can Increase Political Polarization: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment on Social Media
- O’Regan, C. & Theil, S. (2018 & 2019). Hate Speech Regulation on Social Media: An Intractable Contemporary Challenge
- Laub, Z. (2019, June). Hate Speech on Social Media: Global Comparisons
- Pailliez, C. (2020, October). Beheaded French Teacher Was Target of Angry Social Media Campaign