Almost everyone in this generation and society uses social media whether it be for entertainment, communication, education, news or even politics, its versatility is what makes is so popular. When viewing social media as an asset, it can be seen as a tool that enhances freedom and encourages co-operation. However, to what extent does this freedom and connection become a pool of false accusations and misinformation causing debate and argument among the people so grateful to co-operate with each other. While social media platforms have the potential to become an applicable source for news as they can encourage democracy through political participation, they are not used to their full extent as misinformation is present and online activism makes little impact.
In a quantitative analysis of journalist’s twitter use, Glenda Daniels finds that “Twitter was used mainly for opinion and comment, broadcasting news, and ‘other’ such as promotion of brand, with a much smaller percentage for directly soliciting public engagement” (Daniels, 2014). Such findings represent how it is very possible for Twitter to be used as a platform for democracy within the public sphere, by allowing and introducing different opinions to online news debate. The accessibility of social media allows for a variety of diverse perspectives from individuals of all different positionalities, which promotes fairness to democracy online. However, the journalist’s being studied in Daniels’ analysis possess a conceptual gaze that although Twitter can be an effective tool for the sharing of news and opinion, they do not seem to take it seriously as a realistic tool for democracy (Daniel, 2014). Furthermore, given that social media is a very popular and influential technology, politicians will strategically use it to their advantage by campaigning and advocating online which appeals to new demographics and ultimately improves the recognition they receive.
What makes social media so widely accepted geographically and culturally, is its accessibility. Anyone with access to a technology and the internet can use social media platforms and participate in online social activities. Unfortunately, this is also what makes social media unreliable as an information source. There is no requirement of proven education or knowledge to make a post about absolutely anything the user wants, which is why people are commonly advised to “not believe everything you see on the internet”. Take Covid-19 for example. When the news broke out that a global pandemic was among us, people panicked and immediately turned to social media to not only find quick and easy information, but to share whatever rumors and stories they have heard as if it were honest facts. In a study analyzing the factors associated with the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 on social media, it was found “that misinformation about conspiracies related to COVID-19 is most likely to spread” as opposed to other topics (Wang et al., 2022). These results show that the spread of misinformation on social media is more prevalent during a crisis. It is important to combat this spread especially when it plays into the medical industry as people become hesitant to accept the vaccine due to what they have heard online which can then harm themselves and others.
Although it has been established that social media can enhance political participation as online activism is a low-risk way for a user to share their opinion and show support, there then becomes the issue of “slacktivism”. The United Nations defines “slacktivism” as – “supporting a cause by performing simple measures … while not being genuinely engaged or devoted to making a change” (Ralston, 2022). An example of this would be the #BlackoutTuesday trend on Instagram where back in 2020, users posted an empty black screen to their feed in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Doing this only made the situation worse as actual informational and fundraising posts about Black Lives Matter was flooded by these posts and pushed down to the bottom of the #BlackLivesMatter feed. Furthermore, the users that posted these black screens had an ulterior motive of simply looking like an activist to their followers rather than taking real action towards the issue. It is easy for people to “feel” like they are making a difference and being political by using a hashtag, reposting, or even signing a petition. However in these cases, that is just the internet and social media doing the work for the users. There is no risk to participating in politics online as there is with doing so in real life, and risk is what makes a political movement effective.
In essence, social media platforms such as Twitter can indeed constitute a space of democracy through its aspects of freedom and accessibility. However, to make it possible for social media to be an effective source of news where reliable information and political participation can take place, the factors that make it ‘social’ would have to be removed. If you want information to be reliable, only those with accepted knowledge can contribute to the spread of information and it therefore becomes a less inclusive and accessible technology. If ‘slacktivism’ is prohibited, online influencers and celebrities would not be as admired because they are no longer “helping” others or seen as “good”. Therefore, the spread of misinformation and the rise of online activism makes social media an unreliable source for news and politics.
Daniels, G. (2014). How far does Twitter deepen democracy through public engagement?: An analysis of journalists’ use of Twitter in the Johannesburg newsroom. Journal of African Media Studies, 6(3), 299–311. https://doi.org/10.1386/jams.6.3.299_1
Wang, X., Zhang, M., Fan, W., & Zhao, K. (2022). Understanding the spread of COVID‐19 misinformation on social media: The effects of topics and a political leader’s nudge. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 73(5), 726–737. https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.24576
Ralston, S. J. (2022). Postdigital Slacktivism. Postdigital Science and Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-022-00308-1