It was easy for me to set up my domain and find a hosting service so that alexiscornwall.ca could live somewhere on the web. I can show you recent projects I’ve been working on, link you to my social media accounts and through these various avenues share my opinion on basically anything. So as a person who creates and disseminates content online you would think that I believe that social media platforms are democratic; I mean it seems easy enough for any person to participate and put their two cents in. So how could it not be? Unfortunately, I don’t actually think social media is as accessible and democratic as we believe it to be.
I see the point of view that social media allows for people to come together and connect. I do however see the things that prevent it from fostering true democracy. With the rise of things like cancel culture and doxing, I believe that opinions and perspectives can be silenced due to fear. This is contrary to the equality that democracy is meant to foster. Though I doubt it was the original intent, Social Media allows for people to become enthralled by “thought leaders” in closed echo chambers. These kinds of spaces leave room for those who wish to take advantage of a “stage” where they are primed to share their own facts and beliefs. These echo chambers can inspire many who are ready to listen and believe without question. The varying degrees to which different groups and individuals experience and are affected by censorship prevent social media and the internet as a whole from being truly democratized. A truly democratic internet sometimes seems impossible.
I think about the ways that freedom of speech on the internet can be used for good – the #metoo movement; Colin Kaepernick and his activism; #oscarssowhite bringing awareness to the Academy and their systemic racism; “websleuths” solving actual crimes; Netflix’s “Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer” ; and Chrissy Teigan roasting Donald Trump on Twitter for everyone’s enjoyment. Social media and online spaces can allow for people to create communities around interests, passions and even dislikes. There are a lot of positives involved in the creation of community brought forward by social media. A great benefit is that people can engage with others over even the most niche interests. The only issue is that since communities can flourish anywhere online, it is hard to ensure that these people are being provided with the facts that they deserve and are making informed decisions, rather than creating echo chambers for toxic ideologies. How can we prevent the spread of information while at the same time making sure everyone feels heard and like they belong?
The Washington Post has the slogan of “Democracy Dies in Darkness” which debuted (as luck would have it) on the social media platform Snapchat in 2017. I interpret this slogan and it’s well-timed publication as this: the freedom of knowledge and the access to information allows for decisions and opinions to be made confidently. This is possible because citizens have been provided with all of the facts and can participate in society intentionally. For the Washington Post, being a media organization with a focus on news and journalism, this statement is quite fitting due to the fact that journalism is based on the premise of providing the people with all sides of the story. Not just the parts that fall in line with our personal opinions and beliefs.
Social media and its supposed democratization has clearly brought forward some alarming trends, the growing number of people being radicalized online to name just one. A glaring example of this is the use of social media to plan and organize the storming of the US capitol in 2021. This kind of amplification of negativity is what leads from reasonable people having a discussion to eccentric people causing real harm. This echo chambering is very dangerous because it seems people are emboldened to take their anger and dehumanizing into the physical world – a phenomenon called disassociated imagination.
One of the cornerstones of democracy is inclusiveness. Social media may create spaces for dialogue and even discourse on many different topics but I think that it also allows for people to be ganged up on and bullied into submission if what they are saying is not what the majority deems acceptable. In the world of modern media, it has become much easier for the voices of some to be silenced.
With how easy it is these days to “cancel” people, I believe there is a fear that many online are now faced with: the fear of saying something controversial and then being hunted down and possibly even doxed. Will something I said in the past, not representative of me today, ruin me in 10 years? If the citizens are not able to voice opinions and engage in reasonable discourse then we as a society are advocating for a selective democracy. Only the voices of those who say what we like are backed and propelled. It is important to note that reasonable discourse should absolutely be free of hate, racism and any form of xenophobia. People are allowed to have a difference of opinion but it does not excuse violence and every person’s right to feel safe.
Not every person on the web has the liberties that we enjoy here as citizens of North America. People are censored online in many different capacities. One would think that access to politicians and their social media accounts would be necessary. I think that in general people have the right to see what an elected member is about: what are their policies? Who/what do they support? Are they sane? Elected officials need, perhaps more than anyone else, accountability.
The way the world utilizes and engages on social media means more connection, more freedom to information and evolving methods of receiving news. It also seems to mean more isolation, virally dispersed misinformation, and a paranoid distrust of the mainstream. Social media may be seen as a democracy, or a democratization of the internet, but in practice it is not there yet.
Suler, John. 2004. “The Online Disinhibition Effect” Available from: Cyberpsychology & behavior 7.3 (2004): 321-326.