The existence of democracy is impossible without the freedom of expression. The latter is achieved on condition that media, as a powerful source of information, indeed has the liberty to act freely and without coercion. No matter how idealistic and unrealistic it sounds, media has to serve democracy on various levels. Social media, which is currently at the peak of its popularity, may be viewed as a tool that not only greatly influences people's opinions on certain everyday issues, but also plays an important role during election campaigns and therefore political sphere of the country. Since social media has different roles, it can cause problems to democracy. Thus, it is reasonable to analyze the ways in which social media can promote and deteriorate democracy as well as providing some suggestions on how to prevent harmful effects on democracy in the future.
The Interrelation between Social Media and Democracy
Democracy has never been on the list of first choices for the government form. From the history, it is a well-known fact that countries have a tendency to start with monarchy, move on to totalitarian regime and only in the end opt for democratic model of the state (Chambers and Costain 45). The worldwide diffusion of democratic ideas is a necessary byproduct of mass communication. Nowadays democracy may appear protected from totalitarianism of the mind, but there are other dangers that undermine the very foundations of democracies. Journalists in different countries, who are threatened, persecuted, or even killed for daring to express inconvenient or dissenting political views, may serve as a proof of this fact. The pressure and violence to which they are exposed when they denounce corruption and crime, insidious control exercised over certain media by governments anxious to silence non-conforming voices – these are painful reminders that the battle for freedom of expression in a democratic country is never truly over. Journalists are supposed to report facts that are not distorted by personal values and fears they have because they represent such powerful domain as mass media (Chambers and Costain 65).
The role of media in modern societies and its relation to functioning democracy is multifaceted. It gives wider view of the world enabling people to see more than their experiences may allow. Media widens people’s horizons and acts as a gatekeeper, blocking some content and letting other through the gate (Chambers and Costain 77). It filters information and shows only a part of reality, as well as acting as a means of persuasion, injecting or shooting audiences with messages to which they have no defense, creating instant effects (Gunther and Mughan 11). Pop culture as a part of media has a special role. It presumably was created by the powers with intent to keep masses ignorant and keep their minds off revolting like opium for the people. Media also keeps society quiet, distracts it, and keeps it happy with easy entertainment and tabloid journalism. For example, gladiator games, chariot races, and theatre performances in Ancient Rome kept lower classes from rising up against the elite (Gunther and Mughan 12) Media also functions as a screen that blocks people from reality and shows non-thought-provoking reality in return. German propaganda during the World War was doing just that – the country’s defeats were ignored in the news and a false picture of fighting was shown (Chambers and Costain 79).
Social media is one of the newest forms of media that is currently extremely influential in the course of elections and debates over political issues. On the one hand, it gives voice and power to people who do not have it. The campaign “Black Lives Matter” serves as an example of this. Social media served as a powerful drive and a tool to start a movement to protect African-American part of the population from violence and racism (“Social Media and Democracy”). On the other hand, it feeds bad habits for money since it is still primarily a moneymaking business and its aim is to generate and increase profit. Twitter and Facebook as social media outlets are great examples of that (Vaidhyanathan). They can be a force for good but they also may contribute to violation of democracy principles because the news they show are hardly unbiased. For example, there were multiple Facebook accounts detected in anti-Hillary campaign participation during elections (“Social Media and Democracy”). Russian intervention in cyberspace, even though it remains a debatable issue, may also serve as a proof that social media feeds people with information, which was paid for by the interested parties. During the election time, social media, as well as other forms of media, is to provide information so that people can make decisions and get involved in politics (“Social Media and Democracy”). However, since it is a business and businesses are supposed to give their customers what they want, its positive influence on shaping democracy is debatable.
Media plays an important role in shaping political thoughts and the outcomes of elections. Political commercials, candidates chosen in part for the appealing image they project on television, technical experts advising candidates on strategies and voters’ sentiments, media professionals hired to produce compelling campaign materials, mounting campaign expenses, and mass media moving to the center of campaigns are common practices around the world (Gunther and Mughan 113). They all serve as a proof that media is utilized in political sphere and therefore influences the country’s democratic nature. In an indirect way media selects decision makers, shapes policies, distributes power and provides venues for debate on socially approved relations of conflict about factional grievances and issues, national problems and directions, international agendas and activities (Gunther and Mughan 114).
The Way Social Media Promotes Democracy
Social media promotes democracy in various ways. Among the most common means is allowing the criticism of government and exposing its wrongs, giving voices to people who are members of minorities, involving young generations in political discussions, protecting people who are fighting for freedom, and establishing connection between the government and citizens of the country. Criticism of the government and exposing its negative sides is a crucial task for the media because it promotes objectivity of discourse. Authoritarian leaders from Russia and Venezuela, who suppress any kind of protest against their rule, as well as notorious Kim Jong In from North Korea who is voicing nuclear weapon threats from time to time are constructively criticized in social media (“Social Media and Democracy”). As information becomes costless, it becomes harder to keep secrets. One of the prominent examples of how media exposed government faults is the case with Wikileaks in the United States (“Social Media and Democracy”). It merely took one individual exporting information out of a secure environment and this information propagated across the Internet (“Social Media and Democracy”). Social media also plays an important role in giving voices to minorities. Facebook and Twitter are saturated with different levels of expressed complaints and concerns. “Black Lives Matter” campaign is one of the most well-known examples of how a minority was successfully fighting for its rights first via social media platforms and only then moved on to street protests. Another example to support this claim would be the case with Syrian refugees. Due to extensive media and, in particular, social media coverage enormous numbers of refugees still managed to find shelter in various countries of Europe, especially in Germany (“Social Media and Democracy”).
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Social media plays the role of the protector of people who are fighting for freedom and democracy in various countries all over the globe. For example, US is providing high-tech help with innovations for anti-government activists in a number of countries throughout the world. Panic button application is one of the newest pro-democratic innovations designed for democratic activists. This application can be uploaded on the activists’ cell phones. In case they are detained, the software instantly erases the contact book in their cell phones and sends a warning sign to other activists. This innovation is aimed to protect pro-democracy forces in the Middle East countries. One more example of how media is utilized in a positive way is that it involves young generation in political issues and election process, provides them with a platform to fight for their freedoms and rights. Social media utilized during political campaigns made election process more democratic. Such method of candidates’ promotion is especially targeting young audience. Posts, tweets, and ads on social media are assessed by the quantity of followers and likes they receive. The political issues that concern young generations the most retweeted, shared, and liked and in this way political candidates understand what issue has to be supported in order to get the votes of new generations of Americans. Another positive example of media coverage is establishing connection between the Oval Office and common people. President Obama’s 2008 election campaign was seen as a triumph of social media for democracy. His Facebook page was estimated to have 2 million friends (Vaidhyanathan). It was a textbook case of how to put social media to work for political purposes. By mobilizing many people in small amounts, big amount of money can be accumulated quickly via social media political campaigns. Nowadays, a landmark political change in the world can be observed due to changes in social media political activity. It is no longer ignorant and is becoming more responsive or more technologically repressive. China is an example of using media to allow communication but also prevent it (Chambers and Costain 65).
The Way Social Media Deteriorates Democracy
Social media is a powerful tool to use against democracy. It can be utilized in the pursuit of democracy, but regimes in countries such as China are known to monitor their content and use them for repressive purposes. Many governments will be facing a choice of whether to stifle or support this type of social media revolution in the way people receive political news and start protests to defend their freedoms. One of the ways to limit people in this respect is to impose greater tools upon Internet traffic, to remove content, to charge money for content, so that people cannot afford it, to erect firewalls and end up killing dissemination of information for the sake of short-term security. In order to prevent social media from spreading information freely, governments of some countries attempt to identify protesters using social media. Governments in Burma and Zimbabwe are attempting to exert control over social media and they are utilizing all possible means to do so. The United States are much more permissive and liberal in this respect (Hern). However, it is clear that exerting such control over social media is rather expensive and the cost of filtering information may prove to be not worth the money invested into it.
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Democracy remains in a precarious and vulnerable state and media very often has a harmful effect on it. It especially concerns political agendas and election campaigns in particular. Nowadays the image is more important than fundamentals. With the advent of internet and especially with the spread of social media it is more difficult for a political candidate or a politician to lie and project a false image. However, at the same time, political figures can be completely in control of their own press and no longer need traditional media. Currently, politicians who control the narrative can create the image they want. “Personality cult” which is on the rise now, has been observed in politics and its rise happened through social media (Hern).
Some of the ways in which media deteriorates democracy are promoting criticism and trolling among political candidates and spreading fake news in coverage of certain events or people. Things happening in social media now have an enormous effect on the voting. Therefore, political candidates are actively searching for and revealing the dirt on each other to journalists, even though very often the information they provide should not be trusted. Brexit and presidential elections of 2016 may serve as examples of how candidates are using all possible means to put dark spots on each other’s reputation (Hern). Since such techniques that involve candidates actively criticizing and trolling each other in discrete and indiscrete manner are effective, they may result in swinging the elections. Ignorant reader of newsfeed on Facebook may view the quantity of retweets and reposts as a sign of trustworthy information and, as a result, vote for somebody else in elections. What he or she does not realize is that there are automatic services that repost and retweet articles on purpose – to change the voters’ opinions. One solution to the problem of media deteriorating democracy via criticism and trolling of candidates is to be more attentive with filtering information on social media platforms (Hern).
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Social media may also contribute to deterioration of democracy by means of spreading fake news. Facebook and Twitter are not merely social media platforms, but sources from which people consume their news. In 2016, fake election news attracted more attention on Facebook than stories from 19 mainstream media outlets combined (Vaidhyanathan). Immense quantity of very well-packaged misinformation spreads quickly. Experts say that this is due to the fact that nobody checks the facts anymore. One example of elections related news item had a header “Trump would require Muslims to wear badges”. It has to be pointed out that during political elections candidates may use the fake news to their advantage. Donald Trump, in particular, mentioned the term “fake news” 141 times on his own Twitter and in this way he promoted the idea that media should not be trusted. As a result, media outlets criticizing him were made to look as if they were untrustworthy and lying. In order to fight with the issue of spreading fake news Google even announced that it will prohibit advertisement from websites promoting fake news, but the issue still remains (Vaidhyanathan). Fake news have a detrimental effect on democracy because, in case with elections in particular, they may influence people’s opinion about the candidate and encourage them to vote for a different one, leading the democratic country in another direction. Although it is difficult to identify what is true and what is fake in social media without editorial control or standards, it is still possible to do something about it. In order to resolve the issue of fake news and untrustworthiness of media it may prove to be a good idea to read beyond the headlines, to check the source for spelling errors and to google other sources in order to verify it (Vaidhyanathan).
Conclusions and Ways How to Prevent Negative Influences of Social Media
To conclude with, there is no denying that media has the power to shape public opinion about the idea of democracy. It can foster the dissemination and exchange of information and ideas in a tolerant spirit but it can also deteriorate democracy. The main problems with media influence on democracy are criticism and trolling in political discourse and fake news spreading. To solve them, people are to filter and verify all information carefully, fact-check everything they read and try not to make quick decisions based merely on information that is provocative, savory and is likely to cause scandal. In order to make media work better for democracy it has to be controlled not by the government but by organizations that would fact-check and verify the trustworthiness of news items that appear not only on TV and in newspapers, but also in social media and on the Internet.