Defying Democracy: How Social Media is Changing Activism

The role of social media in politics and activism has caused much debate. We spoke to one expert on how online platforms are being utilised by politicians and activists.


Trump’s infamous Twitter presence has often made news. Headlines now are often created due to Trump’s tweets rather than policy. While he gets RTs and often outraged replies for his absurd tweets, what has been drawn into question is how Twitter and rival social media platform, Facebook, have been pulled into Trump’s machine.

Since the results in November, there have been frantic attempts to explain just how Trump was elected president. CNN has revealed that numerous Russian linked Facebook adverts were used to target the key states of Michigan and Wisconsin during the presidential election. As investigations into Trump’s connections with Russia continue, there’s a real sense that social media was a key factor in the election  – but nobody truly knows how and in what scope. Trumpbots, Russia, and right wing trolls make the picture all the more blurry.

Mark Carrigan, Digital Sociologist and Social Media Consultant and assistant editor of Big Data & Society, has focused his work upon how social media is utilised. Carrigan believes that while social media has been accused of being an echo chamber, its role in connecting people (and ideas) does call for a nuanced analysis.

“In recent years, cyber-utopianism has been discredited and that’s a good thing, if we hope to realistically appraise the political consequences of these technologies,” says Mark. “It’s much less common now to find people making the case that digital media will empower individuals, undermine hierarchy and usher in a brave new world. This utopianism was rooted in a particular time and place, providing a technological equivalent to the breathless rhetoric of figures like Anthony Giddens and Tony Blair who claimed we were moving ‘beyond left and right’.

“But an increasing scrutiny of the darker sides of digital media, particularly post-Trump, too often obscures the continued positive capacities of these technologies to bring people together and articulate a collective claim on the world. These positive and negative aspects co-exist: the risk of the echo-chamber is an unfortunate by-product of the mechanisms through which social media allows new collectives to form. Nonetheless, we need to remember that this isn’t an inexorable consequence of the technology itself. Some of the unfortunate features of online political culture are as much a reflection of long-term political disengagement, particularly the decline in trade union and political party membership, as they are the influence of the technology itself.

“We can and should reclaim a positive vision of the capacity of social media to empower marginalised people and elevate their voice, while being realistic about some of the risks inherent in doing this.”

““We can and should reclaim a positive vision of the capacity of social media to empower marginalised people and elevate their voice”

Social media has seen the rise of ferocious positioning. In the UK, it has been independent left wing sites (such as The Canary) who have managed to successfully implement a clickbait model and engage politically. The political parties themselves have tried to use social media to their advantage, with varying degrees of success. Experts for The Guardian credited some of Corbyn’s success due to how well Labour engaged people on social media, while the Conservatives implemented a poor strategy and didn’t use posts to defend their base or key constituencies.

Carrigan, however, offers a sober view of the role of social media in elections.

“There’s a lot of hype surrounding social media and elections, much of which is indistinguishable from marketing material for the companies involved,” says Carrigan.

“Cambridge Analytica is the most prominent example of this, held up by some critics on the left as a terrifying exemplar of the coming digital authoritarianism in which elections are won by whoever can employ the most data scientists. Coincidentally, these claims about their influence match those made by the company itself, albeit without the critical spin. We need to be careful about blindly reproducing claims made concerning the role of social media in elections by companies whose raison d’etre is to help exploit social media data (alongside other sources) for electoral gain. Nonetheless, there clearly are changes underway.

“The role of technology in politics has never been static. There’s no reason to believe social media would be any less significant for electoral politics than radio and television were, as well as many reasons to suspect they might prove to be more so. It’s just important that we remain critical of the vested interests of those who are already playing this game.”

Cambridge Analyttica are a private company that claim to use data to be able to drive audiences and change their behaviours. It’s easy to see why such an organisation would seem alluring during the campaign season. Yet, while social media clearly has its place as a platform alongside other mediums, such as TV, there are still debates about its true reach and impact.

Social media though is accessible. It’s an easy forum for people to use instantly and connect with others. Its concept then can give anyone a voice, and from it has evolved a new mode of activism, called ‘slacktivism’. It’s a method of online engagement which people use hoping to bring change, such as through petitions. Its popularity has particularly allowed disabled people and others, such as trans people, who are at risk of being unsafe within ‘real life’ activist environments to engage. But just how effective is slacktivism?

“It depends what you mean by ‘effective’. It can demonstrably be an extremely powerful way of gathering people together in a particular place at a specific time. Furthermore, it can do so in a way which extends beyond existing networks, reducing the reliance of mobilisations on the more traditional forms of engagement such as stalls, leafletting and canvassing, seen most prominently during national elections,” says Mark.

“However, there are important questions to be asked about whether this is necessarily a good thing. It might be easier to assemble people together but what do they once they are there? Can you keep them together after the initial assembly? They may be able to draw people out in large numbers but they’re ill-equipped for articulating demands or developing strategies, leaving them easily outmanoeuvred by more traditional political organisations. Social media offer powerful tools for movements but they also create problems”

Carrigan cites the work of Zeynep Tufekci who has even featured on Ted Talks to warn that activists shouldn’t take for granted the role of online activism, but that it also may be far weaker to sustain and carry out cohesive action than traditional methods of activism.

However, the purpose of social media is not to engage change, but to bring in money through hits. Whether that’s the platforms themselves or the businesses using them who want to extend their brand’s reach. As a result of this, while social media can give instant platforms to voices that were silenced in society, it is debatable about whether the platforms are actually democratic. Platforms end up being tools for brands and there are huge issues too with dealing with online hate. Facebook and Twitter have both been criticised for not doing enough to protect marginalised people while going out of the way to uphold the establishment and the right have capitalised on this, creating political memes (such as by using the Pepe frog meme particularly across the forum 4Chan) to get quick laughs and shares which spread their messages far and wide.

“It’s not so much that social media empowers the ‘wrong’ voices, as that the incentives for democratic debate aren’t there,” says Mark. “Meaningful dialogue is a slow, difficult process which is particularly difficult when it takes place between those who lack trust in the good-will of those they are talking to. This would be difficult under the best of circumstances but it’s close to impossible within the environments of most social media platforms.

“For all the participatory rhetoric which surrounds them, the underlying economy is one of visibility and this is something accrued through generating a reaction. It might be that this reaction is praise for slowly and carefully seeking to understand the position of a person you are debating with. But it’s much more likely to be a witty quip that appeals to the lowest common denominator of potential viewers.”

“This is the problem on a micro-scale. Now what happens when millions of these interactions feed into each other over years? We have increasingly toxic cultures, driven by expectations of behaviour, within which harassment thrives. Only the most naive person could claim social media had created the hate we can see in so many corners of the internet. We live in a racist, classist, sexist, ableist, homophobic and transphobic world. But social media has created an environment in which this hate can be leveraged for visibility as far too many aggressively people compete to be seen to the exclusion of the dialogical and relational powers of these technologies. I’m not a pessimist about social media but I am increasingly a pessimist about people.”

“I’m not a pessimist about social media but I am increasingly a pessimist about people”

Scrolling through social media and it’s easy to see why anyone’s views on humanity would take a dent. Diane Abbott received almost half of all abuse that was sent online through Twitter to women who are MPs, and many of the tweets contained racism and misogynoir. The horrific incident of Gamergate should be mentioned in any article about the rise of the ‘alt-right’ (or rebranded neo-Nazis). Cis white and male gamers targeted women, and especially trans women, who were gamers for months online, with game developer Zoë Quinn being at the centre of the abuse. It’s even been revealed that liberal journalists asked for Milo Yiannopoulos to set his 4Chan army of trolls on certain feminist writers.

Social media is a tool that we don’t yet understand that has been placed in some of the most dangerous hands. While society is still skewed in favour of an oppressive establishment, its role in aiding empowerment of marginalised voices will be limited. What we need then, is to learn how to be better rather individually and as a society than how to use our followers to our own ends. Perhaps then, social media can become a positive tool for democracy.

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