Although giving a pretense of offering democratic spaces for people to express their own opinions, social media, overall, is not democratic. In fact, it builds a pathway towards digital authoritarianism, where personal freedom may be violated to maintain the authority’s, or the government’s, control over the populace. A concept that will aid in exploring democracy in social media is the “disinhibition effect” (Suler, 2004), which describes a number of factors that are involved in reducing people’s reservations when interacting online. It is also important to acknowledge censorship in social media and the governments’ roles in such practices.
On the surface, social media platforms create a democratic space for interaction because of some aspects of the “disinhibition effect.” (Sular, 2004) That is, people are more inclined to speak their minds because the online platform “minimiz[es] authority” (Sular, 2004) through the use of anonymous environments. In these spaces, most indicators of social and economic power are typically unknown – and even when known, they carry less weight than in the offline world; thus, all people are treated as relatively equal on the internet, which allows people to say anything they want to whoever they want. In this, social media seems to promote democracy because it can provide a space with equal opportunity for people to engage in conversations about important issues, regardless of their status or power.
However, as Peter Lunenfeld (Anderson & Rainie, 2020) asserts, these platforms “have design attributes that look and feel democratic, but… [are] authoritarian to the core.” One of the main concerns with social media that reduces its democratic value is censorship – the act of removing content that is deemed obscene or unacceptable. However, it is also quite clear in watching the video documentary The Cleaners (2018) that censorship is necessary to hide sensitive and sometimes horrific content. For example, the general public would likely agree that images depicting child pornography or violent acts against oneself and others should be removed from social media platforms – although they would also likely be surprised at how quickly the judgment to keep or delete content is made.
So, what is the issue with censorship? Indeed, it is the very act of censoring content on social media platforms that may be considered a violation of its users’ freedom of speech and expression. In The Cleaners (2018), an artist’s satirical art piece was removed from Facebook because it portrayed the American president, Donald Trump, nude. On one end, it was the artist’s expression of their opinion on the American president and politics; on the other end, it was removed for defamation of a powerful political figure – not for obscenity. In removing this piece of content, the social media platform effectively silenced the artist’s voice in a place where people are supposedly able to share anything they want. This indicates that posts may be removed for reasons other than consisting of graphic content and the social media platforms are not fully democratic because they may favour some groups or individuals in their censorship. This is, of course, resulting in the disallowance posts due to the opinions presented in them.
Another issue with the artist’s case is that the content moderator was in the Philippines – they have different values and culture compared to the artist who was in North America. That is, North America is quite familiar and accepting of satire, whereas that may not be the case in the Philippines. This is a problem because it demonstrates that, on an individual level, judgments of the acceptability of content is subjective and it depends on who is making the judgment. This also applies on a much larger level as well; governments typically determine what type of censorship is employed in their country. In essence, governments can control the media that is released to its people because they could, otherwise, ban social media platforms that insist on allowing unfavourable content. Evidently, “corporate and government agendas generally do not serve democratic goals” (Anderson & Rainie, 2020), as corporations are simply looking to expand to international usage for greater revenue and governments are looking to maintain their power. With this, social media has taken a step toward authoritarianism because citizens are losing access to information that would allow them to make well-informed decisions and arguments – and challenge the government.
In summary, social media platforms are not democratic; they appear to be because there is a notion of equality and freedom online, but because censorship is required to keep a certain amount of order within these modes of communication, it is not. Authoritarianism is actually rooted into social media because, although censorship acts to protect people from many things online, it can also be used by governments to maintain their positions. This idea of social media being undemocratic is important because it affects peoples’ trust in not only social media sites, but also in the government, itself. If, for example, people believe the news they are receiving on social media is manipulated by the government, then they will question what the government is trying to hide. (Vogels, Perrin, & Anderson, 2020) In all, handling censorship in a way that democracy can be preserved, while removing disturbing content is a delicate balance that the world has yet to figure out. It may not be the case of figuring out what should be censored, but rather, who is allowed to choose.
Anderson, J., & Rainie, L. (2020, May 31). Concerns about democracy in the digital age. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/02/21/concerns-about-democracy-in-the-digital-age/
Block, H., & Riesewieck, M. (2018). The Cleaners [Film]. Wonder Pictures.
Suler, J. (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from http://truecenterpublishing.com/psycyber/disinhibit.html
Vogels, E., Perrin, A., & Anderson, M. (2020, September 18). Most Americans Think Social Media Sites Censor Political Viewpoints. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/08/19/most-americans-think-social-media-sites-censor-political-viewpoints/