Social media is often accused of being an echo chamber, but has it played a role in empowering marginalised people and elevating their voices?
It has and it’s important that we don’t lose sight of this when we focus on the problems which social media is creating for politics. In recent years, cyber-utopianism has been discredited and that’s a good thing, if we hope to realistically appraise the political consequences of these technologies. It’s much less common now to find people making the case that digital media will empower individuals, undermine hierarchy and usher in a brave new world. This utopianism was rooted in a particular time and place, providing a technological equivalent to the breathless rhetoric of figures like Anthony Giddens and Tony Blair who claimed we were moving ‘beyond left and right’.
But an increasing scrutiny of the darker sides of digital media, particularly post-Trump, too often obscures the continued positive capacities of these technologies to bring people together and articulate a collective claim on the world. These positive and negative aspects co-exist: the risk of the echo-chamber is an unfortunate byproduct of the mechanisms through which social media allows new collectives to form. Nonetheless, we need to remember that this isn’t an inexorable consequence of the technology itself. Some of the unfortunate features of online political culture are as much a reflection of long-term political disengagement, particularly the decline in trade union and political party membership, as they are the influence of the technology itself. We can and should reclaim a positive vision of the capacity of social media to empower marginalised people and elevate their voice, while being realistic about some of the risks inherent in doing this.
Is activism through social media effective?
It depends what you mean by ‘effective’. It can demonstrably be an extremely powerful way of gathering people together in a particular place at a specific time. Furthermore, it can do so in a way which extends beyond existing networks, reducing the reliance of mobilisations on the more traditional forms of engagement such as stalls, leafletting and canvassing, seen most prominently during national elections. However there are important questions to be asked about whether this is necessarily a good thing. It might be easier to assemble people together but what do they once they are there? Can you keep them together after the initial assembly? The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has convincingly argued that networked protests don’t develop organisational capacities because of precisely this ease of assembly. They may be able to draw people out in large numbers but they’re ill-equipped for articulating demands or developing strategies, leaving them easily outmanoeuvred by more traditional political organisations. Social media offer powerful tools for movements but they also create problems.
Social media has been talked about a lot with regards to democracy after Trump’s win. Do you think there’s really any understanding of just how well social media can be used to campaign? It feels as though politicians may not have even scratched the surface, at least that we know of.
There’s a lot of hype surrounding social media and elections, much of which is indistinguishable from marketing material for the companies involved. Cambridge Analytica is the most prominent example of this, held up by some critics on the left as a terrifying exemplar of the coming digital authoritarianism in which elections are won by whoever can employ the most data scientists. Coincidentally, these claims about their influence match those made by the company itself, albeit without the critical spin. We need to be careful about blindly reproducing claims made concerning the role of social media in elections by companies whose raison d’etre is to help exploit social media data (alongside other sources) for electoral gain. Nonetheless, there clearly are changes underway. The role of technology in politics has never been static. There’s no reason to believe social media would be any less significant for electoral politics than radio and television were, as well as many reasons to suspect they might prove to be more so. It’s just important that we remain critical of the vested interests of those who are already playing this game.
Online harassment has not really been tackled and marginalised people are especially at risk (shown best perhaps by ‘Gamergate’). Is it a risk that social media is empowering the wrong voices and shutting down democratic debate?
It’s not so much that social media empowers the ‘wrong’ voices, as that the incentives for democratic debate aren’t there. Meaningful dialogue is a slow, difficult process which is particularly difficult when it takes place between those who lack trust in the good-will of those they are talking to. This would be difficult under the best of circumstances but it’s close to impossible within the environments of most social media platforms. For all the participatory rhetoric which surrounds them, the underlying economy is one of visibility and this is something accrued through generating a reaction. It might be that this reaction is praise for slowly and carefully seeking to understand the position of a person you are debating with. But it’s much more likely to be a witty quip that appeals to the lowest common denominator of potential viewers.
This is the problem on a micro-scale. Now what happens when millions of these interactions feed into each other over years? We have increasingly toxic cultures, driven by expectations of behaviour, within which harassment thrives. Only the most naive person could claim social media had created the hate we can see in so many corners of the internet. We live in a racist, classist, sexist, ableist, homophobic and transphobic world. But social media has created an environment in which this hate can be leveraged for visibility as far too many aggressively people compete to be seen to the exclusion of the dialogical and relational powers of these technologies. I’m not a pessimist about social media but I am increasingly a pessimist about people.