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Social Media Platforms: A Crisis of Democracy?

Mon, May 28, 11:00 to 12:15, Hilton Prague, Floor: LL, Congress Hall I

Session Submission Type: Panel


We are living through extraordinary times in the evolution of the internet’s role in democratic politics. In the advanced democracies, 2016 was one of the most remarkable years in modern political history. Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and the defeat of Hillary Clinton, the resurgence of the populist right and even a new populist left are arguably equal in importance to fall of the Berlin Wall and the global financial crisis of 2008—the two previous upheavals that so decisively shaped the political culture of the last thirty years. Amid the chaos there is a growing debate about whether the mass use of social media platforms may, in some way or another, have contributed to these political outcomes. This begs an important and deceptively simple question: are social media platforms reshaping how public opinion is formed? This panel will seek to provide an answer. It will unpack what it actually means to say that shifts in media technologies “do” things to such a complicated set of social practices as public opinion in democracies. It will examine what we know, what we do not know, and what we should seek to know, about the many relationships between social media platforms and how citizens form political judgements that matter. And it will weigh up the consequences for democracy—both good and bad—of social media platforms’ everyday ubiquity.

Democratic optimism remains in place but it is increasingly brittle. Eroding it are more cautious, qualified, and critical perspectives that highlight what were often latent subthemes when social media platforms were on the rise. These themes include the appropriation and integration of social media by so-called “mainstream” media; the role of automation, predictive analytics, algorithms, and surveillance; the ethical vacuum that lies at the heart of the platform concept itself; the rise of inauthenticity in political expression in the form of social media bots, highly-automated accounts, and platforms’ susceptibility to foreign influence during key political events; and, above all, the effects of Facebook’s growth to become a vast, sprawling, and arcane two billion-user megaplatform through which two thirds of adult Americans have their most frequent interactions with news. This shift requires much greater attention than before to the political, economic, social, cultural, and technological processes that create the conditions in which public opinion is constructed in a democracy. Are social media platforms causing a crisis of democracy?

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