Social Media and the Democratization of Information
Media bias is a topic that is increasingly relevant in elections where voters habitually rely on the news to make political decisions. Traditional mass media plays a large enough role in American politics that it has earned the moniker of the ‘fourth branch of government’. Undoubtedly, traditional news sources can exert pressure on political attitudes by covering the topics that will go on to decide elections, stoking public outrage, and building or diminishing public support for any given policy. Lodging the power to shape culture in the hands of a few elites in traditional media reflects aristocracy, and power in the hands of all users in social media reflects democracy.
Media bias is a recurring concern that implicates both sides of the political spectrum. Fox News was found to influence elections from 2000 to 2008 in a ‘statistically significant way’ . Voter data shows that increased interaction with newspapers led to a 2.8% increase in voter turnout alone . Tim Groseclose measured media bias in his 2005 study by associating news organizations with the partisan identification of politicians that cite them in speeches, which found that most news sources tend to be slanted towards the left . This study garnered controversy though, with others like Gross et al. commenting that it conflates two distinct definitions of bias: that a news source fails to represent reality, and that a news source fails to represent the opinions of most Americans . These two definitions are not as congruent in practice as the Groseclose study would suggest. However, more Americans themselves are likely to say media influence on politics is greater in 2021 than in 2020, with 41% claiming that media influence has expanded as opposed to 32% in 2020 . Regardless of whether the right or left is more to blame, there is enough evidence that traditional mass media influences public opinion that it cannot be ignored. Mass media, especially on television, is perfectly positioned to fill any of the political information gaps that are characteristic of the American electorate. There is too much evidence to discount that the media has some effect on public opinion.
In general, any kind of media that collects, summarizes, and frames information that people will use to make political decisions has enough power to pass its bias onto the political system through the electorate. Mass media sources bear some of the responsibility for creating and distorting public attitudes for this reason. Traditional mass media is an aristocratic institution in this way, as it relies on a small group of people to serve information for mass consumption.
Enter social media, boasting a vastly different structure than traditional media. Social media and the internet have made it easier for people to access news. No matter what news makes its way to social media, it has a significant chance of being consumed by Americans. In 2021, 48% of Americans claimed to get news from social media ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’, which was down from an all-time high of 53% in 2020 . Social media empowers Americans to access political information more readily.
Individual Americans use social media to more closely interact with political information. Social media networks open politics up to more people. They bypass the roadblocks between people that are sometimes created by traditional news media. Young people use social media for political news more than any other source, with 48% of their news coming from social media . Additionally, more Hispanic people use social media for political news than any other source, and black people rely on social media only less than TV news . Just like democracy, universal participation in social media makes it accessible to more demographics. Social media is preferred by these demographics for political news, which shows that it bridges the gap between consumers and information. This shows that social media and the internet can be effective in providing information with fewer barriers to those who seek it out. This is a democratic concept, as it represents a situation in which more people can access the news. Social media was largely responsible for generating and fueling social movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, and the encouragement of protest by minorities is also democratic by nature. The issue is that social media gives everyone a voice, just like democracy. While productive social movements flourish, possibly dangerous organizations like QAnnon fester. This is the nature of the widespread participation that social media creates. Like democracy, it aims to put consumers on a more even playing field, and like democracy, it allows some dangerous or controversial movements to grow.
Politicians also use social media to change politics within the electorate. Obama’s 2008 campaign was one of the first major presidential bids that relied on the Internet for fundraising and grassroots outreach to supporters. Trump famously used social media as president too. While campaigning, he used the mechanism as a way to directly speak to supporters for a very low cost and generate attention in the mass media. As president, social media was Trump’s bully pulpit. For politicians, this method represents a way to avoid the scrutiny of the traditional media and speak directly to their supporters, who are often more friendly to them, on their terms. Given that politicians now interact more with the general public directly, it reflects a more direct democratic dissemination of information.
However, social media organizing can do everything from helping people stop racial injustice to fanning the flames of a coup. Social media is deliberative by nature and provides a forum where people can work to understand ideas about government and debate policy on a larger scale. Following the Arab Spring, social media was cited as a positive new way to promote political participation and organization of democratic protest. On the other hand, social media’s ability to give power to people leads to misinformation that can spiral into conspiracy. Social media bred the January 6th insurgency at the US Capitol. Participants used right-wing sites like Gab and Parler to communicate about which streets to take to avoid the police, and QAnon and the Proud Boys openly recruited over social media . This type of contradiction is central to democracy, just like social media itself. Social media’s egalitarian merits are balanced by its dangerous ability to place power in the hands of ordinary people. Social media breeds worries not unlike the worries that democracy bred about mob rule at the drafting of the Constitution.
Echo chambers are a cause for concern in social media networks where people interact with like-minded peers. Social media echo chambers are part of reality, but not all of it. According to Chris Bail in his 2021 book, echo chambers exist, but most users are not in them. Additionally, echo chambers can serve as a way to trap highly biased and untrue opinions about politics within a smaller community before they reach the general community of users on the platform . Extremist opinions remain in echo chambers, and bringing those opinions to the mainstream may polarize more people. Echo chambers are rare and can actually foster deliberation by users in general. The internet should provide an environment for people to deliberate, as democracies are meant to do. Where traditional news media becomes bogged down in their own biases, social media flourishes because biases are already highly visible when coming from individual users.
America’s government is structurally polarized. Individual actors within government seem at times to the public to be too concerned with policy objectives from within their parties. Members of Congress draw hard lines without compromise when attempting to innovate policy. Social media brings deliberation back to democracy for the public, at least, and allows more people to talk about politics in more ways. It brings them unprecedented direct access to politicians. Social media is far from perfect, though, and a great deal of this deliberation is non-productive. Perhaps this is the very way that social media mirrors democracy. In a direct democracy, deliberation is also strained but central, and the system struggles to regulate what is productive and what is dangerous and unnecessary. Social media reflects these issues. Democracy comes with the benefit of political power for those who are governed, and the cost of being at the whim of rule by the majority that could be overly passionate, or uneducated. This is a balance that has been negotiated for as long as the Constitution. In his 2022 article, Jonathan Haidt claimed that the algorithm's ability to sensationalize politics was making Americans “stupid” . This is a critique that has always existed for both social media and democracy. A fact of popular rule by the majority is that it aims to value all opinions as equally valid, regardless of if they are “stupid” or not. Despite the argument that the bad of social media outweighs the good, the internet is inherently democratic in its character, and at the very least can supplement the biased traditional media with individual opinions that are still biased, but at least the multiplicity of biases dilute the power of any single bias to gain control over the political narrative.
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