Under the rhetoric of John Suler, our cyberspace facilitates a space where dialogue has the ability to flourish, as it follows a structure that allows for a diminishment of authority (Suler, 2004). Breaking the “fourth wall” of authoritative people such as Politian’s, celebrities, and influencers, conversations are able to transpire that may have not been accessible in past years; all with thanks to the creation of social media. However, with the choice of being the gatekeeper on what information you share, what posts you post, what ‘tweets’ you tweet and so on, it would be naïve to assume the nuances of online spaces are inherently democratic. Although, with this plethora of information allows for a broadening sense of education, highlighting a multiplicity of voices in the media-sphere. Without this opportunity for positivity to flourish through these new mediums, there would be no latter to complain about. With this being said, I believe that social media in a utopian setting, highlights the ability for constructive conversation to prosper; however, that is not the reality of our current situation. The circulation of false information in one’s echo chamber, with the addition of an oversaturated media rabbit hole, social media is hurtful to furthering any democracy.
With democracy being built on a foundation of representing for all, Suler’s concept of media spaces as a means to connect users would guide one to assume that this would construct platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as quintessential tools to furthering this idea. However, as a study by Elia Powers, Michael Koliska and Pallavi Guha (Powers, Koliska, & Guha, 2019) discusses, during the controversial 2016 U.S. election, it was frequently found that social media users oftentimes “avoided conflicts by suppressing their political opinions” (Powers, Koliska, & Guha, 2019) online. The fear of judgement, stress, and argumentative behavior are some of side effects that come alongside a vocal online presence. With this shared tension and anxiety of expression, of how can this space be deemed as democratic? If users are afraid of backlash from not only family, friends, and employers, but also from strangers and internet ‘trolls’, it is does not facilitate an environment for healthy, democratic discussion.
With this dread being instilled for adverse online communication, in combination with known self-censorship due to this notion, it alludes that social media encourages the opposite of a multiplicity of voices. As Meeus and Anneleen explore self-presentation, they highlight a fundamental conflict with deeming social media as a fully democratic space (2019).
“When engaging in self-presentation, individuals tend to control the information they disclose about themselves, for instance, by accentuating or downplaying certain aspects of the self, or using prior social scripts to strategically influence their own self-presentations”(Meeus and Anneleen, 2019)
This self-censorship and management that is shown to be adopted by social networking users, offers a dismantle of the democracy of users. If users are all consumed by self-presentation, how is it possible to create content that does not follow these nuances by content-creators?
Reinforcing the narrative of trust issues within the media sphere through social media platforms, looking to social media users emerging economies in terms of accessing political news, “in most countries”, in-person discussion [are] seen as more valuable for keeping up with political news than social media”. This demonstrates that within countries that have restricted access to a multiplicity news outlet, that there is still a greater reassurance amongst peers, family members, and friends over what is circulated on social media sites.
The frequency of fake news may be a leading factor to this inherent confusion within these emerging countries. As noted by U.S. adults, “about a third say they often see made-up political news online; 51% say they see inaccurate news”, this is inherently problematic as the confusion bombarded to users due to this circulation is detrimental to a functioning democracy. Pillared on the idea of an informed citizen, a study done in May 2016 found that 62% of U.S. adults retrieve their news from social media sites. – with numbers like these, the harm of media echo chambers permits a severe democratic issue.
The toxic cyclical manner of fake news, high rates of confusion, and management of anxiety through curated self-presentation, does not illustrate a healthy environment for a well-informed, democratic society. Turning to social media to self-educate is concerning due to internet trolls, vulnerable users, and gatekeeping users of authority. This disengagement that can be assumed from the fear of users consuming allegedly fake news, in conjunction with U.S. adults consuming news from these sources, constructs a messy recipe for a democratic disaster; reflected in emerging economies trusting more on word of mouth over these sites, creating user-wide angst of identity management to avoid social media retaliation.
Meeus, Anneleen. (2019). Like me (please?): Connecting online self-presentation to pre- and early adolescents’ self-esteem. New Media & Society., 21(11/12), 2386-2403.
Powers, E., Koliska, M., & Guha, P. (2019). “Shouting Matches and Echo Chambers”: Perceived Identity Threats and Political Self-Censorship on Social Media. International Journal of Communication, 3630-3649.
Suler, J. (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect. The Psychology of Cyberspace.