Social media are blamed for almost everything that is wrong with democracy.
Facebook, twitter and other platforms are held responsible for pollution of the democratic environment through fake news, junk science, computational propaganda and aggressive microtargeting. They are accused of creating political filter bubbles and echo chambers. In turn, these phenomena have been implicated in the rise of populism, political polarisation, waves of hate against women and minorities, far‐right extremism and radicalisation, post‐truth and political chaos.
Many see this as the death of democracy, with something akin to grief. And just like the famous five stages of grief, their responses can be characterised as denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance. The first four of these responses hamper democratic systems in accommodating social media. Fast forwarding to acceptance would make it easier for political institutions to catch up with a digital society.
1. Denial: politics as usual
The ‘denial’ standpoint rests on the claim that there is nothing new here, and that digital technologies in general are a neutral tool that (sometimes) make things work better.
Although computer systems entered the machinery of government as early as the 1950s, the impact of technological change on politics was largely ignored in the media until recently. Part of this resistance, particularly in British politics, comes from the mistaken idea that politics that is automated or digitised in some way is not ‘real’ politics. It should involve a long boring meeting or knocking on doors in bad weather. Social media’s role in politics is dismissed as mere ‘clicktivism’ or ‘slacktivism’, even at a time when social media are being blamed for their massively pernicious influence.
2. Bargaining: the internet will make us free
Here is the view that technology in the form of the internet is going to transform our political system and solve the traditional dilemmas of politics. We can live in a hyper‐modernist world of direct democracy, where the bureaucratic state can disintegrate. But this can happen only if we preserve the internet as an icon of freedom, unconstrained by governance or regulation, following the original cyberactivist John Perry Barlow and his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.
Even in a political world dominated by Google and Facebook, adherents to this cyber‐libertarian utopia keep dreaming. Any censorship or regulation of the internet or social media is opposed vehemently. For them, even hate speech and microtargeted personalised advertising must all be allowed to continue unchecked.
3. Anger: shoot the messenger!
This is currently the dominant view: technology is to blame for everything bad in democracy, from the rise of radicalisation and the extreme right (or left), to the election of Donald Trump as US President in 2016.
In particular, social media are seen as responsible for the creation of echo chambers or filter bubbles, reinforced by the use of fake news; political bots; or attempts generally to try to disrupt an opponent’s campaign.
The other accusation made against social media is that of hate speech (through the phenomenon of trolling against public figures, particularly women or people of the Muslim faith) and, more generally, a degeneration of civic discourse and a further polarisation of political discussion.
4. Depression: post‐truth
Depression is the next stage, where social media have led us to a post‐truth world, where we cannot distinguish real news from fake news, and emotions trump objective facts. Under this view, the internet corporations will continue steadily in their inexorable rise, taking over some roles from the state and turning citizens into ad‐clicking data providers.
Meanwhile, any genuinely ‘social’ media will be strangled, dominated by massive political entities (such as the Russian regime). Genuine political movements like the Arab Spring could never happen again. For some, this view is bound up in a more general rejection of technology’s role in society, for example, in automating jobs, and a desire for a return to the past.
5. Acceptance: moving on from myths
Reaching the final stage of grief would be to accept that digital media platforms are part of our democratic system, the political weather, and that political systems must accommodate the change.
Most social media platforms did not exist ten years ago, and they have been at the heart of our political systems for far less than that, so it is understandable that political institutions have failed to adjust. Social media corporations are the new institutions of democracy, but they have proceeded unchecked and unregulated. Now it’s time to play institutional catch‐up.
In many ways, the myths of the other stages of grief all work against the possibility of integrating and institutionalising social media platforms into democratic life. Acceptance would allow us to tackle some of these myths with research, to understand their scale and scope.
Such a task is not as straightforward as it might seem. Most social media data from the more popular platforms such as Facebook and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) is proprietary and closely guarded, meaning that the revolution in big data and data science has passed by democracy research. Lack of access to data has done much to stifle research into social media’s actual (as opposed to gloomily hypothesised) impact upon democracy. But there are proposals for institutionalisation emerging – and we need to start finding out if they can work.