Helen Margetts in OpenDemocracy: “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.
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….(More)”.