By Emily Sweeney
February 22, 2021
In this essay, I will argue that the internet and social media as they exist now are undemocratic. These tools used to be utilized for democracy, and I believe still contribute to democracy by bringing people together and acting as a place for news, but as time has gone on, we have started using these processes and tools to manipulate each other and disable politics. These tools live now as a cesspool of toxicity and a manipulation station for politics.
Social media was intended to bring the public together and let them affect politics and overall, their country (Nisbet, 2008). However, I would argue that the public sphere/internet promotes “weak publics” as described in Nancy Fraser’s article (1990). These audiences are virtually screaming into the void as they give their opinions and think they are making a difference but aren’t actually involved in the decision-making process in many fields (like politics).
One of the key points in the argument that the internet/social media is democratic is the idea that the internet is a great equalizer (Nisbet, 2008). As discussed in Nancy Fraser’s article (1990), we see that public spheres (such as the internet/social media) mimic our political economy and actually amplify marginalization and class divides. One modern example of this is the Twitch community. Twitch is an online streaming platform where people can live stream whatever they wish, though many choose to stream themselves playing videogames and interpret these games through their own lens. Twitch has a massive issue with racism and sexism, and as a result, Black streamers (and even more severely, Black female streamers) are bullied and pushed to the margins of the platform (Gray, 2017). Black Twitchers are deviant from the norm and not welcome in the realm of cultural production/not welcome to interpret these games through their own lenses as their lenses challenge the societal narrative.
The internet/social media are slowly becoming a cesspool of radicalized trolls attempting to impede democracy. We can see this happening on Reddit. Through its platforms and algorithms, Reddit provides a fertile breeding ground for “toxic technocultures” and sexism (Massanari, 2017). Reddit encourages geek culture, specifically white geek masculinity, which has strong connections to the idea of the “incel” or “involuntarily celibate” man who ends up with few to no romantic prospects due to the evilness of women. Thus, posts about gender politics and geek sensibilities do well (get a lot of upvotes/likes and a high “score”) and end up featured prominently, sometimes even on the front page of Reddit, so this encourages others to mirror this behaviour and makes the platform into a toxic environment. Popular subreddits end up featured on the front page of Reddit, which can include offensive subreddits. This can scare away new users seeing the front page who don’t subscribe to that sort of culture. They may stop using Reddit, and this ends up with a cycle where there are many sexist or misogynistic characters on Reddit, and not as many people willing to go up against them. Reddit’s tools for reporting and flagging aren’t very effective and do little to help. There also isn’t a way to report a whole subreddit or have it taken down, you can only report comments or links. As a result, offensive and awful subreddits are extremely difficult to have removed, and most of the time aren’t removed. Additionally, Reddit is supposed to be a democratic or neutral platform, so administrators are very against intervening or censoring their users. Even if a user is banned for inappropriate content it’s very easy to create account after account and keep on posting. Even subreddits, if they’re taken down, are just reformed with a different name (Massanari, 2017). I believe this example is a strong indicator that the internet/social media are undemocratic as they exist now, and that they will only become more so.
The internet and social media are now actively being used to combat democracy. For the 2016 American Presidential Election, Donald Trump hired the company “Cambridge Analytica” to help with his campaign. Cambridge Analytica went on to develop their own personality quiz application for Facebook and collected millions of data points on potential voters, and even those voters’ friends through this app. This data was then used to very specifically target vulnerable voters who were unsure of who to vote for. These voters had targeted ads made specifically for them in order to sway their political opinion and manipulate them into voting for Donald Trump (Hu, 2020). To have such personal and political manipulations delivered through the internet/social media points to a frightening future where we the public are mind-controlled by higher powers and devoid of agency.
In this paper, I have argued that the internet and social media are overwhelmingly undemocratic. We see that the public believes they are participating in politics by giving their opinion online, but in reality, are left out of any important decision-making (Fraser, 1990). Through my research, it has become clear that the internet/social media replicate our political economy and perpetuate marginalization and gatekeeping (Gray, 2017). These platforms have become home to a culture of sexism and racism and encourage a toxic environment that is very undemocratic (Massanari, 2017). At times, these platforms are even used to impede democracy, as seen with the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and the related data invasion and targeted marketing used to secure the position for Donald Trump (Hu, 2020). In conclusion, I strongly believe that the internet and social media have entered an era of manipulation and unjust culture and would require a massive overhaul in order to become democratic, which would require much tougher regulations from the government and platforms and browsers themselves.
Fraser, Nancy. 1990. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy” in Social Text No 25/26. Available from JStor: http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/stable/466240?seq=1
Gray, Kishonna. 2017. “They’re just too urban”: Black gamers streaming on Twitch.” pp. 355-368 In Digital Sociologies.
Hu, Margaret. (2020). Cambridge Analytica’s black box. Big Data & Society, 7(2), 205395172093809. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951720938091
Massanari, Adrienne. 2017. “Gamergate and the Fappening: How Reddit’s Algorithm, Governance, and Culture Support Toxic Technocultures.” New Media & Society.
Nisbet, Erik C. (2008). Media Use, Democratic Citizenship, and Communication Gaps in a Developing Democracy. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 20(4), 454–482. https://doi.org/10.1093/ijpor/edn043