Democracy is dead: long live democracy!

Any successful attempt to prevent the real social media pathologies – such as extremist, abusive and hateful behavior online  – must be multi-faceted, thoughtful, collaborative and evidence based.

Helen Margetts
12 November 2017
Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 09.41.20.png

Screenshot from Medium website: About Medium, where words matter.In the course of the World Forum for Democracy 2017, and in political commentary more generally, social media are blamed for almost everything that is wrong with democracy. They are held responsible for pollution of the democratic environment through fake news, junk science, computational propaganda and aggressive micro-targeting. In turn, these phenomena have been blamed for the rise of populism, political polarization, far-right extremism and radicalisation, waves of hate against women and minorities, post-truth, the end of representative democracy, fake democracy and ultimately, the death of democracy. It feels like the tirade of relatives of the deceased at the trial of the murderer. It is extraordinary how much of this litany is taken almost as given, the most gloomy prognoses as certain visions of the future.

Yet actually we know rather little about the relationship between social media and democracy. Because ten years of the internet and social media have challenged everything we thought we knew.  They have injected volatility and instability into political systems, bringing a continual cast of unpredictable events. They bring into question normative models of democracy – by which we might understand the macro-level shifts at work  – seeming to make possible the highest hopes and worst fears of republicanism and pluralism.

They have transformed the ecology of interest groups and mobilizations. They have challenged élites and ruling institutions, bringing regulatory decay and policy sclerosis. They create undercurrents of political life that burst to the surface in seemingly random ways, making fools of opinion polls and pollsters. And although the platforms themselves generate new sources of real-time transactional data that might be used to understand and shape this changed environment, most of this data is proprietary and inaccessible to researchers, meaning that the revolution in big data and data science has passed by democracy research. Most of this data is proprietary and inaccessible to researchers –  the revolution in big data and data science has passed by democracy research.

What do we know? The value of tiny acts

Certainly digital media are entwined with every democratic institution and the daily lives of citizens. When deciding whether to vote, to support, to campaign, to demonstrate, to complain – digital media are with us at every step, shaping our information environment and extending our social networks by creating hundreds or thousands of ‘weak ties’, particularly for users of social media platforms such as Facebook or Instagram. 

So social media platforms have transformed the costs and benefits of every kind of political participation. But the key difference that social media have brought to the democratic landscape is the raft of new activities which are characterized by being really small, extending below the bottom rung of the ladder of participation, which stretches from small acts such as signing a petition, through voting, to attending a political meeting, and donating money to a political cause, right up to political violence or armed struggle. Following, liking, tweeting, retweeting, sharing text or images relating to a political issue or signing up to a digital campaign are tiny acts of political participation that have no equivalent in the pre-social media age (there is no precedent, for example, for reading President Trump’s tweets).

Even tweeting about a demonstration you have not attended is an act, because you have sent a tiny signal of viability to anyone looking at your tweet (or the +1 on a ‘like’), and made it that bit more likely that they also will act. These tiny acts are all around the democratic environment. They have enabled ordinary people across the world with no more resources than a mobile phone to challenge injustice, fight for policy or regime change, and shed light on corruption and inefficiency in public life. Until only 20 years ago, there was no way to participate in politics without joining a political party or organized interest group, attending meetings and knocking on doors. For many people, the costs were too great, politics was too lumpy. These tiny acts are drawing new people into politics, particularly young people, whose absence political commentators have been bemoaning for years.  These tiny acts are drawing new people into politics, particularly young people, whose absence political commentators have been bemoaning for years. 

Earthquakes large and small

Tiny acts of participation can scale up dramatically and rapidly to large-scale mobilizations, such as demonstrations, protests or campaigns for policy change. Petitions to re-run the EU referendum or block Donald Trump from a state visit to the UK immediately shot up to over 4 million signatures. From 2009 and demonstrations against financial crisis and austerity there can be hardly a country in the world that has not experienced widespread demonstration, protest or campaigning for political change taking place on social media. These mobilizations have challenged and even brought regime change in authoritarian states, and a whole host of policy changes in liberal democracies, from justice for victims of police brutality, to the end of controversial health reforms. A few of these mobilizations have developed into new political parties across the ideological spectrum, from the Spanish Podemos to the Italian Five-Star Movement to the German far-right Pegida, all highly disruptive forces in the political systems in which they have emerged.

But they almost always don’t. For example, the overwhelming majority (99.99%) of petitions to the UK or US governments fail to get the 100,000 signatures required for a parliamentary debate (UK) or an official response (US)[1]. There is no normal distribution of mobilizations; rather, a distribution that is more like that of earthquakes – a small number of extreme events and a huge number of insignificant ones. It is hard to predict which will succeed and which will fail (just as it is for earthquakes). The shift towards new forms of mobilization based on tiny acts of digital participation has brought an era of  ‘political turbulence[1] where politics becomes harder and harder to predict.

Political turbulence means a challenge to two stabilising elements of democracy – political identity and institutions. Rather than identifying with issues, forming collective identity and then acting to support the interests of that identity – or voting for a political party that supports it – in a social media world, people act first, and think about it, or identify with others later, if at all. And even when a mobilization does succeed in getting a million people on the street, or signing a petition, or even a revolution of sorts as in Egypt – the very fact that it is possible to get there without the normal organizational trappings (such as nascent parties or leaders) of a movement or revolutions – means that it will usually be unsustainable.

At the same time, turbulence threatens democratic institutions of all kinds, by showing that political figures from outside the mainstream – from Jeremy Corbyn to Donald Trump – can win. Will the Labour party ever recover from Corbyn, the Republican party from Trump? So democratic institutions and processes in a social media age are unstable. Will the Labour party ever recover from Corbyn, the Republican party from Trump?  – democratic institutions and processes in a social media age are unstable.

Political turbulence is traumatic for democracy. As noted above, many approach it as a death, with something akin to grief. So I label the various responses to this Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression and Resistance, based on the famous five stages of grief[2].

Denial: politics as usual

The first response to the relationship between social media and politics was denial.  This view goes that there is nothing new here, and that digital technologies in general are a neutral tool that (sometimes) make things work better (as Jane Austen might put it)[3]. Before the 2000s, visual images of politics or political movies never contained technology – always venerable buildings, talking heads, pens, and desks. Any consideration of technological change still has no part in politics courses. Part of this resistance comes from the ‘politics as pain’ principle – particularly in British politics – that insists that politics that is automated or digitized in some way is not real politics. It should involve a long boring meeting or knocking on doors in bad weather or cut into the evenings. This view is behind the dismissal of social media’s role in politics as mere ‘clicktivism’ or ‘slacktivism’[4]. It is interesting that this view manages to prevail, even while social media are being blamed for their massively pernicious influence.

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 09.47.13.png

Screenshot from Medium website: About Medium.

Bargaining: the internet will make us free

Others take the second stage of grief – bargaining – to extreme. 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[5] in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, which proclaimed:

‘Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one.........I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.’

In this world, political life will be reinvented, a ‘global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us’… as long as we are true to this cyber-libertarian dream. Even in a political world dominated by social media platforms run by huge internet corporations such as Google and Facebook (that might seem to have replaced the ‘giants of steel’), adherents to this faith dream on, and for them any censorship or regulation of the internet or social media is opposed vehemently. Even hate speech and micro-targeted personalized advertising, must all be allowed to continue unchecked. For cyber-libertarians, even hate speech and micro-targeted personalized advertising must all be allowed to continue unchecked.

Anger: shoot the messenger!

This is currently the dominant view, where technology – particularly the internet, and over the last decade, social media – is to blame for everything bad in democracy. This is a special case of a more general tendency to blame the internet for everything, from plane crashes to teenage suicides. Here social media is responsible for most pathologies of modern election campaigns, through the creation of echo chambers or filter bubbles of like-minded people, where citizens receive constant reinforcement of their own views, which somehow leads to political polarization.

These bubbles are reinforced by phenomena of fake news, where third parties (non-media organizations) create completely untrue stories and tempt people to read them, thereby making money off advertisements alongside; and political bots, robotic social media accounts that give the impression that a political campaign has more supporters than it actually has, or 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 Muslim faith) and more generally, a degeneration of civic discourse and a further polarization of political discussion, as people on one side of a debate (such as whether to leave the European Union) react strongly to abusive language on the other.

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 ‘objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’[6]. 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, choking on their own hate, dominated by computational propaganda from massive political entities (such as the Russian regime) so that genuine political movements as characterized by 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, which manifested itself so powerfully among Trump supporters in 2016, with their MAGA hats, or in the Leave campaign in the UK referendum, with their (ironically, post-truth) red bus.

Acceptance: the institutionalization of social media

There is an alternative response to the role of social media in politics – to accept that they are part of our democratic system, the political weather, and that political systems must accommodate the change, through a process of institutional catch up. Most social media platforms did not exist 10 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, and the new institutions of democracy – social media corporations – have proceeded unchecked and unregulated, particularly given the power of the original cyber-utopian dream.

We need to fastforward through the stages of grief and institutionalize social media in democratic processes. The first task is to tackle the huge information asymmetry between social media platforms and everyone else. Ironically, because these platforms are based entirely on data, it is extremely difficult to obtain the data needed to understand democratic processes, institutions and behavior. While Twitter data is relatively open (hence the disproportionately high levels of scholarly attention it receives) Facebook and Instagram data is proprietary, WhatsAp is encrypted, Snapchat data is deleted as soon as it is read and so on.

Do echo chambers and filter bubbles really exist any more than in non-digital settings (such as in just reading the Daily Mail or watching Fox News)? We don’t really know. Recent research has shown that algorithms play less of a role in exposure to attitude-challenging content than individuals’ own choices and that ‘on average more than 20 percent of an individual’s Facebook friends who report an ideological affiliation are from the opposing party’[7], and that those who do not use social media on average come across news from significantly fewer different online sources than those who do use social media[8]. Do echo chambers and filter bubbles really exist any more than in non-digital settings ?…  We don’t really know.

Likewise, is the hate peddled by trolls something new, somehow caused by the ease of expressing it – or does online hate merely reveal society’s dark secrets? As Gina Miller, who instigated the Article 50 legal case against the UK government put it:

‘The idea that this abuse is the work of keyboard warriors is just not the case. These people take the time to make posters with vile images, put them in envelopes and post them. They go to the trouble of finding my email address or office number. This is really premeditated stuff.’[9]

We need the data to understand the claims of the anger-ridden and grief-stricken mourners of democracy to understand the scale and scope of hate and the mechanisms which drive it, and that means developing research partnerships with social media platforms. One example is Denmark  where the government has appointed a ‘digital ambassador’, in an effort to build closer ties with internet giants such as Apple and Google.

Cleaning up

We need to keep up the pressure on social media platforms to clean up their act and to make more transparent their processes and algorithms which shape what information and news people receive. Facebook have employed thousands of fact-checkers, but they need to go much further in dealing with fake news, and many mainstream media organizations have introduced fact-checking operations. After phenomenal levels of abuse directed at other public figures, particularly women, Twitter are finally speeding up the identification and blocking of trolls and have taken down thousands of accounts.

And when it comes to the growing phenomenon of political bots directed by electoral campaigns or external forces wishing to disrupt elections, the answer may be a counter-spiral of automation by the internet corporations themselves. While an early example of this, the Microsoft ‘Tay’ chatbot driven by artificial intelligence was a miserable failure, learning quickly from the company it kept to spew out racist and abusive venom in all directions, more recent examples have been more successful[10]. Technologists and philosophers will have a role here, particularly in the building of ethical bots that do not go either native, or beyond their remit. And internet corporations will not without pressure put resources into these kind of developments, just as they have balked at revealing algorithms, or blocking trolls.

We need to regulate to protect the democratic environment – but carefully, without going down the German route of treating platforms like publishers, which many believe will be impossible to police. Attempting to ban encrypted platforms such as WhatsAp (as mooted by Amber Rudd - ‘Enough is enough’ is even more meaningless than ‘Brexit means Brexit’) would poison relations with (for example) Facebook while driving miscreants to far darker and harder-to-reach places, representing a massive act of environmental pollution.

And perhaps we need to challenge the monopolies of the huge platforms (is there any other market where Facebook would have been allowed to buy Instagram and Whatsapp?) and (as Paul Mason has suggested) ferret around in the short history of social media to find those platforms, like Soundcloud, Medium and Twitter, that encourage co-operation and creativity and are ‘worth saving’, with new (co-operative) ownership models[11]. We need to… find those platforms, like Soundcloud, Medium and Twitter, that encourage co-operation and creativity and are ‘worth saving’, with new (co-operative) ownership models.

Virtual activism on virtual streets

We also need to stop denigrating tiny acts and extend our idea of what is democratic participation.  And we need to foster new forms of virtual activism. In 2017, we saw many calls for action in the ‘politics as pain’ tradition. The UK political author, journalist and activist Owen Jones in his new year’s message[12] exhorted his listeners to knock on doors and tramp the streets, while Barak Obama, so famous for his brilliant internet-based campaigns of micro-donations and targeted advertising, told his mourning supporters to ‘pick up a clipboard’[13] in his last speech as President.

But the greatest need may be to develop virtual activism on virtual streets. For example, another way of tackling fake news may be to enlist the support of volunteers fact checking and reporting false stories, just as Wikipedia was formed. Confronting hate online at the individual level has been shown to be possible for some public figures, such as the TV academic Mary Beard, who confronted her trolls individually, and there may be creative ways of crowdsourcing such confrontations to avoid individual harm or risk.

Internet-based platforms now form the basis of our democratic environment, which we must protect, rather than rushing to blame them. Any successful attempt to prevent the real social media pathologies – such as extremist, abusive and hateful behavior online  – must be multi-faceted, thoughtful, collaborative and evidence based. It will involve ethical and legal frameworks to guide as well as mandate good behavior; working with tech companies rather than only making enemies of them; smarter policing of activities that are already illegal; and crowdsourcing safety in online spaces, so that people and social enterprises play a role. This is not a sleek hyper-modernist vision of democracy. It is a democracy built on workarounds and fixes, a messy solution for a disorganized, chaotic politics, a politics born out of possibility.

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 09.54.34.png

Screenshot of Medium website: About Medium, where words matter.

The 2018 Internet Politics and Policy Conference: Long Live Democracy? convened by the Oxford Internet Institute and the journal Policy and Internet will take place 20-21 September 2018 in Oxford, abstract deadline 12th March 2018.

Notes and references

[1] Helen Margetts, Peter John, Scott Hale and Taha Yasseri, Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action, Princeton University Press, 2015.

[2] Originally developed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross  (1969) On Death and Dying, Routledge, to describe the emotions experienced by the dying, these five stages have been used widely to encapsulate the way in which people respond to bereavement and grief more generally.

[3] ‘The Musgroves, like their house, were going through a process of modernization, perhaps of improvement’. Persuasion.

[4] For a discussion, see David Karpf "Online political mobilization from the advocacy group's perspective: Looking beyond clicktivism." Policy & Internet 2.4 (2010): 7- 41.

[5] John Perry Barlow ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ 

[6] Definition of ‘post-truth’, designated word of the year in 2016, Oxford English Dictionary.

[7] Bakshy, Eytan, Solomon Messing, and Lada A. Adamic. "Exposure to ideologically diverse news and opinion on Facebook." Science 348.6239 (2015): 1130-1132. 

[8] Rasmus Nielson, Alessia Cornia and Antonis Kalogeropoulos ‘Challenges and Opportunities for news media and journalism in an increasingly digital, mobile and social media environment, Council of Europe Report, 2016.

[9]  Gina Miller interview,The Guardian, 25th January 2017.

[10] Victoria Woollaston, ‘Following the failure of Tay, Microsoft is back with new chatbot Zo’, Wired, 6th December 2016.

[11] Paul Mason ‘Why social media is like the railways – and must be saved’ The Guardian, January 9, 2017.

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5E_iwlV2jyU

[13] https://www.whitehouse.gov/farewell


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData