Is social media enhancing or stifling democracy?

09/01/2014 3:29 PM

09/01/2014 3:31 PM

As an active, albeit measured, user of social media, I’ve been skeptical of arguments that online forums like Facebook and Twitter are the great equalizer.

Some social-media proponents believe that such tools unshackle public opinion and promote the exchange of ideas in forums that allow all participants to freely voice their thoughts and feelings, exposing users to a diversity of ideas.

We’ve even seen dramatic examples — during Iran’s “Green Revolution” and more recently in Ferguson, Missouri — of social media being used to coordinate rallies and share information.

And that, arguably, enlarges our freedom.

During a lecture I attended last year, a panel of political consultants and media experts postulated that social media, and Twitter in particular, markedly enhance democracy and encourage political participation.

One of the panelists even predicted that political and public policy polling would eventually be conducted over social media, because it provides a far more accurate, authentic, wide-ranging and “real-time” depiction of public sentiment regarding hot-button topics than other political tools and traditional media used in the past.

But does it?

A new and somewhat surprising study from the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University seems to suggest that just the opposite is true — that social media tools may actually depress debate about public affairs and limit the diversity of opinion that is often thought to thrive on Internet forums.

“It has been well-documented since before the Internet that a ‘spiral of silence’ descends when people think their opinions are in the minority when compared to those around them,” noted Keith N. Hampton, one of the study authors. “This kind of self-censoring can mean that important information is never shared.”

Conventional wisdom has long been that the Internet was the antidote to this kind of self-censorship. Given its relative anonymity, people should become emboldened to speak their minds within the relative safety of online platforms in a way they would refrain from doing in person at a public meeting or even over the phone.

Apparently, though, the “spiral of silence” has penetrated even the digital world, deterring many people from discussing topics that could lead to controversy or disagreement.

Further, the Pew/Rutgers study found that social media didn’t make it easier for people to share opinions they wouldn’t otherwise share.

The researchers postulate that some more active social media users may have a heightened awareness of controversial subjects, which could account for their cautious approach to issues that are likely to spark debate in their circle of contacts.

But it’s not solely cultural sensitivity that is perpetuating the reticence to speak one’s mind.

In some ways, the Internet has also served to isolate individuals by enabling people to self-select the news and opinions they read, often limiting their exposure to only those they agree with. And social media providers that “suggest” friends, recommend followers and promote stories to read based on a person’s previous preferences only perpetuate this phenomenon.

“People who use social media are finding new ways to engage politically, but there’s a big difference between political participation and deliberation,” Hampton added in the New York Times. “People are less likely to express opinions and to be exposed to the other side, and that’s exposure we’d like to see in a democracy.”

To be fair, the Pew research is built on the comprehensive review of the public’s response to a single issue — and a highly controversial one at that.

The researchers assessed and drew their conclusion based on the study participants’ willingness to discuss issues surrounding the National Security Agency’s surveillance program and the leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden — a topic that may not be representative of the host of issues upon which Americans are more willing to engage.

But even given the study’s limitations, and acknowledging the problems of “Internet bullying” and trolling, it’s worth wondering if social media is isolating users more than connecting them and exposing them to new and divergent ideas.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

©2014 Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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