There’s a simple question at the end of Andrew Chadwick’s The Hybrid Media System which rewards serious thought. From pg 288:
Today, we might ask whether the average citizen interested in influencing politics but without ambitions for high political office should join a political organization or create a Twitter account and start interacting with others in the diverse assemblages that now increasingly make political news and set the agenda.
The answer to this is far from obvious to me. What does seem clear is there’s a widespread bias towards the answer being ‘yes’, as if it’s obvious that participation through social media entails a meaningful contribution to the public sphere. But there are a number of reasons to be sceptical:
- The time taken away from other activities. There’s nothing inherent in social media which precludes other forms of action but it can take time away from them.
- Susceptibility to computational propaganda, purely by virtue of being active and open within a media system which is suffused with bots as a consequence of its relatively open API and its desirability as a target given political practices found there.
- Inadvertent participation in polarisation dynamics, emerging from the design of the platform itself as well as the epistemological consequences of people entering online debates in a predominately activist mode.
Chadwick’s important point is that ‘new’ media leads to significant changes in ‘old’ media, as part of a hybrid media system. In this sense, there are changes in print and broadcast which might be desirable which wouldn’t have come about without the mass of participation I’m being scornful of above. In this sense, the picture looks different depending on whether you focus on the individual, the collective and the institutional. But I’m increasingly a sceptic of social media, albeit one who thinks the genie can’t be put back in the lantern, nor should it mean, meaning the pressing challenge is now how we live with it as individuals and as societies.