[MEDIA] Does social media threaten democracy, for The Political Exchange Podcast @TWRuk

[MEDIA] Does social media threaten democracy, for The Political Exchange Podcast @TWRuk

Earlier this week I recorded material for TWR-UK, for The Political Exchange Podcast. The story was triggered by an article in The Economist, questioning whether social media threatens democracy. Here’s the recording from the session (original on TWR-UK site):

Here’s my notes in preparation:

How have you felt observing negative stories about the negative impact of social media on democracy?

  • Sigh at the continual determination of ‘the media’ (especially that which is threatened by social media) to represent social media as something negative, and not highlight the positive opportunities. #moralpanic
  • However, don’t think social media is ‘perfect’, so there are aspects of how it works that need challenging – for sure – whether legally, or bottom up, etc.
  • Internet has enabled low cost for entry barriers, building truth with audiences, law/regulation harder to enforce BUT STILL online tends to be offline power structures, etc. AMPLIFIED (and it’s not always the visible stuff – e.g. both major political parties in last election spend £000s on advertising, keywords, etc. and most of that’s not on social networks, but e.g. search, paid adverts, etc.
  • In some ways, we give the medium itself too much power – we have too many expectations and fears of the medium (technological determinism)

What are the positives of social media when it comes to engaging with politics?

  • Wrote a piece at the last election re how social media was ‘speaking the language’ of the people, getting people to vote (though generally perceived that those who were got on board would vote Labour, so Telegraph didn’t support it)
  • So, a chance to involve people, a chance to reach people without going through media ‘owned’ by a few people – although rather idealistic!
  • People think that social media is all about an echo chamber, but opens up lots of different ideas. Can be transformative for thinking. Takes effort though! E.g. follow Trump if you don’t agree with him – try and understand why people support him, etc.

Have you any thoughts about how we can harness the positives and leave some of the negatives behind

  • Direct contact with voters, ‘free’ advertising via YouTube, viral campaigns, personalised messages, feedback, listening to public opinion, getting different views, connecting with others similar, micropayments for support, policies online so less paper, etc., interact, responsive, real-time, targeted advertising, hashtags, etc. all can be used well/badly, and a lot is a mix of voter attitudes, legal power, etc. People feel included, etc.
  • People ARE reading the news, we can get e.g. comparison sites for manifestos, strategic vote swapping (qus?), emailing political leader (though can be auto-sends), online petitions, showing have voted – encourages others:
  • See these extracts from the Washington Post:

Some research finds that any effects of online news on political participation – such as voting, advocacy or self-expression – still depend on traditional factors such as how interested in politics someone is to begin with. Other studies find that exposure to information, even for audiences that are not seeking it, can increase political participation, at least online. But research also suggests that the increase occurs mostly among those already interested in news and politics.” “One study found that those who avoid conflict tend to dislike political posts. Those who say they enjoy conflict, on the other hand, post political content more frequently. This study concluded that young voters are open to political information on social media only when it is presented in a civil manner.”

What would you define as the major threats to democracy from social media?

  • CAN be seen as an opportunity to ‘flatten hierarchies’, but in reality old power structures still have power, they just have it in new spaces – also see how so much power is in e.g. Facebook – it started as something small, but now is one of the most-used/most-powerful platforms in the world – we can choose how to use for good/bad, but also need to hold the companies to account, e.g. algorithms. See this extract from The Guardian: “Not all of that comes from automation. It also comes from the news culture, bubbles of education, and people’s ability to do critical thinking when they read the news. But the proximate cause of misinformation is Facebook serving junk news to large numbers of users.”

We often hear about #fakenews. How can we diagnose a fake news story when we see it?

  • See notes from Greenbelt/St John’s session: follow the £ publishing it, be aware of advertorials – biggest tip – read a range of versions of the story from different sources.
  • Liked some of the suggestions at the end of the Economist article, re e.g. ensuring it’s clear what comes from Bots, who is behind each publication, etc. and likely that legal processes will be needed for this.
  • Be aware are some humourous sites that can be pretty on the money, getting beneath the skin – but so close to real these days can be hard to tell!

How do you feel about the quote in the article in the Economist about how social media ‘reinforces bias’ and ‘aggravate partisanship’?

  • Social Media – filter bubbles/echo chambers – we hear a lot about it, and it can be a real thing, but v. interesting study earlier this year via com: “Gentzkow and Shapiro stress in the paper, “Is the Internet Causing Political Polarization? Evidence from Demographics,” that it is possible social media can further polarize people. But people who don’t use the internet are already the most polarized, which suggests that the internet and social media aren’t a cause for extreme religious or political beliefs.” – older groups demonstrated most polarisation, younger groups (most users) the least (CABLE TV likely a more powerful medium)
  • Some useful advice from The New Statesman re breaking out of filter bubbles in order to deliberately expose ourselves to views other than our own, including hiding ‘likes’ from pages you don’t really like, second account, etc. [Neoliberal individualism].

Is it a bit unfair to call a site like Facebook a place where ‘pettiness, scandal and outrage’ are rife?

  • Well, it’s true, but only as much as most other meeting places are – there are SO many people on there – can see worst & best of life. In many ways the visible content is the ‘small talk’, which is going to deal with the ‘small stuff’, people also share the kind of stuff we see in celeb magazines, and build on long trend of media headlines that are designed to create outrage – it has not been developed in a vacuum, so builds on old power bases. Part of larger qu re how revolutionary is it all … change of scale, and also as we’ve talk about filter bubbles, etc.
  • Like the brick analogy – can use for good & bad … certain affordances/constraints but revolution’s are often slower than we think.

Encouragement for Christians who want to be politically engaged online?

  • I’d start at Christians in Politics site – http://www.christiansinpolitics.org.uk – “To see Christians responding to God’s call to positive engagement in party politics and government.” Seek to put God’s kingdom before tribal politics – demonstrate ways to disagree with grace, but be fully involved. We’re living in ‘heaven on earth’, so how do we put out biblical understanding into practice – politics underlies our way of living (homes, jobs, welfare, families) – we can impact – be salt & light, etc. I particularly love “Participate in decision-making, rather than just commentating or criticising from the side-lines.” ONLINE is part of our whole lives – where relationships are – we can make a difference to what is shared/important to people … we need to think about how we engage and break our bubbles. They highlight Biblical reasons:

“Well, for a start, there are lots of biblical reasons to do so. Voting recognises the equality of all people and their right to speak and be heard (Deuteronomy 10:17-19). What is more voting is a simple yet significant way we can do something about politics in our nation (Psalms 34:14). And it is one way that we can obey God’s command to seek the good of those around us and our nation as a whole (Jeremiah 29: 5-6).” *Can demonstrate how Biblical thinking impacts the specific policies that we wish to support – demonstrate intelligent engagement.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.