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Political Significance of Social Media

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The characteristics of new media due to its plasticity and interactivity as open participation and non-hierarchical made social media attractive to many of its users. Social media and other forms of new media has both its merits and demerits in making the world more democratic. To an extent, the rise of social media has made the world more democratic as it is accessible to the everyday person and it encourages political engagement. Conversely, it has also made the world less democratic through its content and context, and along with the use of social media as a tool for propaganda and censorship.

The media has a political significance in its role as the fourth estate in a liberal democracy to keep the checks and balances on government, facilitate public discourse, informing and representing the public. Most of the mass media came with the development of new technology in the 19th and 20th century allowing mass communication. The development of new media such as social media has brought the fastest and most widespread facilitation of information. Hague, Harrop and McCormick defined social media as an interactive online platform with designated recipients, which facilitate collective or individual communication for the exchange of user-generated content, and link mass and personal communication.

Social media has been increasingly influential and its growth has been unprecedented with the rise of technology. The accessibility of social media and its commercial availability had been important in immersing the everyday person into the inaccessible realm of politics. Jay Rosen described this notion of social media as ‘the politically infused participatory media’ (Trottier and Fuchs, 2015). This emerging notion was fuelled by the global adoption of social media by politicians, political activists and citizens alike as a means to engage, organise and communicate their views.

The manifestation of world politics in social media can take many forms from popular culture, memes to satirical videos and articles which may mislead readers. However, the creation of these products does encourage the democratic engagement of citizens in creating and developing opinions in which individuals can defer, negotiate and accommodate power relations. These products can also create a common bond that ties an increasingly divided nation together, as Benedict Anderson argued that the modern nation-state is best understood as an “imagined community” through the sense of cohesion felt by citizens of a modern nation that was both artificial and facilitated by mass media (Hull, 2017). The dynamic of media and politics also can alter, shape and structure political process, public sphere, organisations, institutions and actors (Stromback and Esser, 2017). An example of this is the use of Twitter as an online platform for interaction in the 2011 Arab Spring to organise massive public demonstrations that led to the collapse of the Mubarak regime. The social and personal nature of politics means the reflections of narratives, norms and values produced by society is reflected in the media consumed. In this sense, the accessibility of social media and its political content become intertwined and can become unconsciously political as politics and political subjectivity are interpreted and reconstituted by citizens.

While democracy is intricate and multifaceted, the rise of social media has made the world more cohesive through the sense of shared reality and digitally democratic as Sidney Kraus and Dennis Davis argued, the political reality is formed by mass communication reports which are discussed, altered, and interpreted by citizens in society (Kraus and Davis, 1976). Furthermore, it can be argued that politics on social media is seen as a vital form of political participation.

Media in democracies are characterised by a free flow of information through multiple open channels. However, this may not seem as democratic with the presence of bias and commercialisation of social media. Daniel Trottier and Christian Fuchs theorised that social media is predominantly a corporate-state-power phenomenon in which powerful corporate and state interests are present and meet, evidenced by the existence of a surveillance-industrial complex that controls social media communication and is constituted by a collaboration of social media and internet companies, secret services and private security companies.

Politics in social media politics is inherently shaped by a factor of resources such as visibility, attention, money, reputation, influence and social relations. Peter Dahlgren argued that politics is increasingly organised as a media phenomenon, planned, and executed for and with the co-operation of the media (Dahlgren, 2001). Thus, bias is present and has always been in the media, across all online sources, and questions the form of objectivity to the reader which can have a significant impact with politics. The term “filter bubble” was created in 2010 by Eli Pariser to characterise an internet phenomenon where individuals only receive the kinds of information that they have preselected or that the third parties have decided. An example would be Facebook’s newsfeed advertising which determines its user’s interests based on data collected from browsing and likes, to determine their demographic information and basic political beliefs (Hull, 2017). This creates further problems such as confirmation bias which limits the ability to question information and tend to create polarised groups. Conversely, Chapman Rackaway argued that the effects of media bias are minimal (Rackaway, 2014). Another bias worth noting in within all forms of media is commercial bias where the contents of the media are sponsored by politically motivated groups, which can be caused by the scarce funding source. This is important in making the world more democratising as the media is increasingly becoming one of the dominant institutions in the public sphere, and increasingly integrated into the realm of politics and society.

The rise of social media presented a platform for political communication. However, the democratisation of this depends on the political system and through the use of communication technologies to manipulate the media and the public by the state. Within authoritarian regimes, the media and public relations are tightly controlled with manipulated content, limited free expression and limited media channels by the state. While traditional media is more easily controlled, authoritarian ideologies can infiltrate and persist in the most progressive media outlets (Khrisna-Hensel, 2018) through propaganda, that can take any shape and form to indoctrinate socially malleable masses, bribing media organisations, selective distribution of advertising, manipulation of taxation rates for media, and having laws that facilitate the prosecution of independent and opposition journalists.

The strict control of the internet and social media led to the rise of inevitable new channels for exchanging information and communications in the forms of new networks of social media outlets, alternative press and broadcast outlets. These alternatives are seen as inherently democratising in the sense that citizens and/or governments are crossing the line from consumers and passive spectators to creators of a new public sphere.

Alternative sources of communication for the public has the potential to become the primary shaper of public opinion and a new practice of suppressing dissent, with the implications of such development would have comprehensive consequences for the regime. Thus, it is clear that an emphasis on censorship must be placed by other governments in an authoritarian regime to manage and prevent dissent. The success of social media has been noted by elites in authoritarian regimes through launching their own social media channels, inspired by Facebook or Twitter, with the most notable example of China’s social media sites: WeChat (direct replica of WhatsApp), Weibo (similar to Twitter), and Baidu Tieba (Google and Reddit-style forum), to name a few (BBC, 2017). North Korea, for example, has access to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Chinese social media services such as Weibo domestically restricted to Pyongyang’s elites. Internet access is available for foreign residents and tourists to access social media through the moderately unrestricted Koryolink 3G mobile network (Reddy, 2019), however, internet access remains rare and most citizens can only access state-permitted and homegrown websites and apps through a restricted domestic intranet with active state surveillance. Consequently, the rise of social media has become less democratic with the tight-control of information through the use of propaganda and censorship.

The rise of social media has affected the role of media in changing the fourth estate, inherently made the world more digitally democratic, while concurrently the presence of bias and the use of propaganda and censorship by authoritarian regimes has limited the democratic properties of social media. Thus, the democratic tendencies of social media depend on the political system. In reducing bias to ensure effective communication, citizens are encouraged to engage with media literacy as it is essential in navigating through bias and actively seek out the five concepts of media literacy as outlined by Rackaway: all media messages are constructed; media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules; different people experience the same message differently; media have embedded values and points of view; and most media messages are organised to gain profit and/or power (Rackaway, 2014). Within authoritarian regimes, avoiding direct control and censorship in an internet age includes special skills of critical journalism to gain information and opinions past the censors. Mikal Hem gave some examples in his research through a semi-democratic authoritarian state, which includes: hiding sensitive content in the form of coded messaging which was widely used in Soviet times; asking critical questions at press conferences, while it may not be answered, it can result in further investigations and debates by other journalists and audience of the press conference; publishing sensitive materials in media not associated with politics and sharing content with media outlets that are less likely to be censored can be effective. An example of this is a lifestyle magazine, Esquire, occasionally publishing political pieces in Russia, due to its foreign ownership, which makes it difficult for Russian authorities to put pressure on the editors from the owners. Similar to this tactic, operating the media from abroad through online media can be successful in avoiding censorship, however, website blocking by governments is increasing as online media becomes more influential.

To conclude, this notion is seen as inherently democratising, whether in a democratic or authoritarian regime, in a sense that citizens are crossing the line from consumers and passive spectators to creators to create a new public sphere. This is significant in the media’s effect on politics, where it provides a platform for civic engagement in where politics and political subjectivity are interpreted and reconstituted by its citizens, making it a user-generated democracy. 

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