Social Media and democracy

Since 2009 and the Iran elections, social media and democracy has become synonym to each other, appearing side by side in the media. Across the world we hear of Twitter and Facebook revolutions, about social media as a tool for democracy and a cure for the worlds corrupt regimes. These so-called new and social media, are (often) based on participation and freedom of expression, but still financed by adverts and revenues, leaving the user in an inferior position – if you are not paying for the product, you are the product. This part of our literature review aims to investigate to what extent social media can be used for democracy, and how democratic applications like Facebook and Twitter really are.

The fact that media plays an important role in a democratic society is not news, media works as a watchdog in society, functioning as a third party observers, making sure that the citizens take part in and of the decision making process and are informed about the matters of society. (Cammaerts 2007: xi-xiv). But as media grows more and more narrow with a centralization of media organizations and ownership in the West/North (Deane in Hemer & Tufte), the Internet has broadened the concept of media, and today we talk about traditional and new media. While the traditional media still are run by media organizations and a few actors, new media takes place online and offers a space for all people with access to the Internet, and through this opens the public debate, allowing more inclusion and participation, and in the process, giving a voice to individuals and groups who would normally not be heard in traditional media. (Cammaerts 2007:130).

Salter (in Cammaerts 2007) claims that the Internet is a great tool for democratic communication since it is decentered and textual and often user-generated. (Cammaerts 2007:226). The Internet works outside of traditional borders like states, and provides a transnational public arena, and social media like Facebook and Twitter provides platforms where people with similar interests and goals can meet and discuss, regardless of geographical location. Both Facebook and Twitter have an apparent democratic mission, and Facebook writes that their ‘mission is to make the world more open and connected’, and Twitter writes that ‘ whether you tweet 100 times a day or never, you still have access to the voices and information surrounding all that interests you’, which shows that they aim to be user-generated.

Tuzzi et al, (in Cammaerts 2007) speaks of the concept of e-democracy, meaning when new media tools are used to strengthen and revive democracy by using applications that enhance information flows and communication possibilities in society. (Cammaerts 2007: 31-32). With 800 and 300 million users respectively, Facebook and Twitter do reach a significant number of people. But while these platforms might be democratic within themselves, they are not in all regards. The Internet does have some exclusive features, like the fact that only 30 per cent of the world’s population is online. (ITU[1] 2011). Regarding the social media platforms, Facebook for instance, has some restrictions on the users. Registered users must be over 13 years old, and there are restrictions on what the user are allowed to post and share (Facebook 2012). Twitter recently published a blog post where they opened up for censoring of tweets: ‘starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country, while keeping it available in the rest of the world’, this despite of the fact that they less than a year ago said that their ‘goal is to instantly connect people everywhere […]. For this to happen, freedom of expression is essential […]. We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespectively of any view we may have about the content’. (Twitter 2012).

So where does this leave the social media in terms of being democratic? Fenton (in Cammaerts 2007) concludes that ‘the Internet is only as democratic as the agents who use it’ also saying that, yes, social media can provide a platform for democratic activities, but the activities must still be planned and organized by people. (Cammaerts 2007:235).  So before we hail the social media as the cure for corruption and recipe for democracy, there is a need to truly analyze their function and structures.


[1]ITU, International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies.

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