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Guest Post: Is Social Media Good or Bad for Democracy?

By Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Distinguished Visiting Fellow, the Hoover Institution This post is part of a series on social media and democracy.

Social media use is ubiquitous within the everyday lives of citizens. In Australia, where I live and teach on political participation, Facebook and smartphone use are among the highest in the world.

Their ease of use and constant accessibility is changing our social networks and reshaping our political world.

I don’t minimize the potential challenge of issues like “fake news” or the “filter bubble.” They are real, serious and as yet untamed. And yet a technology that has the capacity to expand and diversify political equality around the world is a net good. Most other forms of political engagement tend to favor those with the most wealth or access. Not social media. It gives voice to anyone with a phone. In a time when political power is synonymous with economic power, the type of collective action social media makes possible is giving more people a say in the conduct of their governments and the society they live in.

Despite compulsory voting and a strong commitment to democratic processes, politicians and political parties are not held in very high regard in Australia. This trust in political actors has been trending downwards for some time. The barrier between ordinary people and elite political decision-making needs to be overcome if citizens are to view politics as relevant to their lives, and not just a space for adversarial and partisan conflict. Social media, through its informal, everyday use, offers the potential to improve the relationships between politics and citizens, and between citizens and citizens. Democracy is strengthened when online relationships are reciprocal and political elites are publicly pushed to be more responsive to everyday citizens and civil society organizations. On the other hand, if people speak up but no one actively listens, simply having a new communication and organizing tool will make no difference.

In Australia, these tendencies surfaced in 2017 over a national plebiscite to legalize same-sex marriage. Ordinary citizens used social media to express their own views, from changing their Facebook avatars to circulating petitions. Social media provided a unique space for forming and sharing opinions on this topic. Unlike many other advanced democracies, Australia has been very slow to recognize and legalize these unions. It has been a topic of heated public and legislative debate for over 10 years, and culminated in the conservative Liberal-National Party government’s decision to hold a non-binding, non-compulsory, mail-back survey of Australian citizens in November 2017, preceded by an eight-week campaign and voting period. In the end 80% of eligible Australians turned out to vote in the plebiscite, with 62% voting Yes. Same-sex marriage was legislated in the Australian national parliament on December 7.

Yet the debate between the “Yes” and “No” camps was polarizing. Many were fearful that LGBTQI Australians suffered long-term harms from the protracted campaign where they were subjected to online abuse, and had to repeatedly justify their access to basic rights. Others were concerned about the spread of misinformation online, from arguments that same-sex marriage would diminish religious freedom in Australia, to claims that it would change school sex education programs. The outcomes of this debate did not emerge from utopian views of “listening to the other side” in a march toward consensus. Instead, the social media-led campaigning became important for building political momentum among a population generally sympathetic to same-sex marriage. The reality is, consensus is not always possible. What is more important is for people to have a safe space to talk with friends and family about their principles.

Two features of these campaigns make it a revealing example of how integral social media has become to democratic politics. First, the reliance on “personal action frames” in online campaign materials. These are videos used by individuals to tell their own story as a means of exposing larger issues and building connections with those who are like-minded.This use of storytelling in collective action has traditionally been associated with progressive causes, and used effectively by prominent LGBTQI groups such as Australians for Marriage Equality (AME). Yet well-funded conservative groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) also created videos and memes. Both campaigns spent large amounts on targeted social media advertising and less on traditional mail-out, television and newspapers ads.

Second, the social media-driven campaigns were shaped by formal politics and heightened partisan conflicts. Same-sex marriage divided the Liberal/National conservative government between its social conservatives and liberals, with socially conservative politicians openly joining religious organizations like ACL to lead the “No” campaign. The opposition party, the Australian Labor Party, publicly united for the “Yes” campaign, while some politicians worked with other smaller progressive parties to build momentum. While the politics of the plebiscite was polarized and conflict riven, much of the new coalition building reinvigorated linkages between politicians and civil society. Pro-marriage equality politicians had to work harder to get their base out for the plebiscite in a way that is very unusual in the Australian compulsory voting context.

This campaign also occurred within a growing ambivalence toward politics, especially among the young. Young women were often the public face of pro-marriage equality campaigning, and 74% of young people voted in the plebiscite. Their turnout was a crucial focus of the campaigns, particularly since this generation is the one most on social media. I have conducted research with young people under 30 and found a majority of them hear about and follow links to news stories about politics via Facebook. Unlike older generations, most young people don’t go straight to traditional media for their news. Facebook is their first port of call in finding out what is happening in the political world. A majority also believe that their social networks of friends and family are politically diverse. This is interesting as it is changing personal access to news into a social exchange among trusted family and friends. While this has the potential to greatly narrow young people’s information sources into just an “echo chamber,” it seems less likely if their online community is as ideologically diverse as they the said it was in our research. Other Australian research has also questioned the dominant idea of social media as an algorithmically driven echo chamber of the like-minded. Recent changes to Facebook’s News Feed may well reinforce this distribution of news and information’s focus on trusted friends and family networks.

Overall, however, we found that young people have considerable ambivalence toward injecting politics into their Facebook accounts. Many expressed a general skepticism, and had feelings of exclusion from formal electoral politics. Our in-depth qualitative analysis showed that young people equate politics with conflict, and something to be avoided on social media. Who needs disagreements with friends and family? Others worried about saying something that was “wrong;” some worried about surveillance and censure by current and future workplaces; and some just wanted to keep social media a place for purely social interactions. Politics, they thought, should be separate.

Many young people are concerned about the incivility of democratic politics and don’t see it as relevant to their lives and the issues that matter to them. The current rise in divisive politics that enables racism, sexism and other forms of exclusion and discrimination only further alienates ordinary citizens. Thus, the barriers to political engagement have more to do with the structure, openness and actions of formal political institutions than the advent of social media. If we want young people and all citizens to feel heard, then the adversarial nature of formal politics itself needs to change. In an era of ongoing distrust of parties and politicians, and despite vibrant online campaigning, social media alone will not be the great democratic panacea. Nor is social media the root cause of political incivility.

Social media platforms weren’t set up to be either news or political organizations, but to a large extent that is what they have become. Increasingly questions arise about where the responsibility to oversee and regulate platforms ought to come from. With these concerns in mind, I recently completed a new project on Digital Rights in Governance in Australia. We asked Australians what they thought about their online privacy, the use of their social media data by their workplaces, governments and third-party advertisers, and threats to their free speech online. Australians recognize that they often trade personal data for the use of platforms and free apps. Yet they also want more protection of their individual privacy, and expect civility and safety online. A majority are concerned about their privacy being violated by corporations, and nearly 80% want to know what social media companies do with their personal data. They think that some use of data analytics and targeting by advertisers is beyond the pale, especially during elections. Australians particularly wanted more regulation of online discussion forums and for it to be easier to have personally harmful content removed. In this situation social media platforms need to have greater involvement in content moderation and ensure they are providing easy, responsive complaints reporting.

But neither governments or social media companies alone can improve the digital rights of citizens. They both have self-serving interests in collecting data to either monetize or use for partisan or security reasons. The boundaries on this must be set by strong civil society organizations that represent the interests of ordinary citizens.

My examples of the same-sex marriage plebiscite, young people and politics, and the digital rights agenda demonstrate that the dividing line between social media as “good” or “bad” for democracy is porous and shifting. Social media can easily become a democratic “bad” when there is a breakdown in civility, political polarization increases and targeted misinformation spreads.

Inherently, however, I believe social media is a net “good” for civic engagement. Whether that remains so rests in part with Facebook, Twitter and all the companies that operate these platforms, and their willingness to play a more active and transparent role in working with civil society organizations to protect the networks they created.

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