In this paper, we give a framework for how to reconcile the contradictions made about social media and its morality. We posit that social media is a tool, which can be used for a variety of different purposes.
Tucker, Joshua A., Yannis Theocharis, Margaret E. Roberts, and Pablo Barberá. “From Liberation to Turmoil: Social Media and Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 28, no. 4 (2017): 46–59. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2017.0064
Oct 07, 2017
Area of Study
How can one technology—social media—simultaneously give rise to hopes for liberation in authoritarian regimes, be used for repression by these same regimes, and be harnessed by antisystem actors in democracy? We present a simple framework for reconciling these contradictory developments based on two propositions: 1) that social media give voice to those previously excluded from political discussion by traditional media, and 2) that although social media democratize access to information, the platforms themselves are neither inherently democratic nor nondemocratic, but represent a tool political actors can use for a variety of goals, including, paradoxically, illiberal goals.
Social media technology is young, but has already played an important role in political developments around the globe. In a head-scratchingly short period of time, social media went from being characterized as “liberation technology” in the early 2010s, destined to make authoritarian rule unable to survive long term with pro-democracy activists finally freed from the shackles of government control of information flows, to “can democracy survive the internet?” in the aftermath of Brexit in 2015 and the U.S. 2016 presidential election, complete with the emergence of “fake news” and Russian foreign influence attempts. So can social media give rise to hopes for liberation in authoritarian regimes, be used for repression by these same regimes, and be harnessed by anti-system actors in democracy, all at the same time?
In this paper, we present a simple framework for reconciling these contradictions. This framework is based on two propositions: 1) that social media gives voice to people excluded from political discussion by traditional media, and 2) that, although social media democratizes access to information, the platforms themselves are neither democratic nor undemocratic. Instead, social media platforms represent a tool that political actors can use for a variety of goals, liberal or illiberal. Our hope is that the framework sketched in this essay will prove useful to those both inside and outside the academy as they wrestle with what the evolving internet world means for politics, democratic, and otherwise.