Abraham Lincoln defined Democracy as “government of, by, and for the people”. It can well be argued that Democracy has given people a larger say in the processes of governance, but it is still a far cry, in most democracies, from a “government of” and “government by” the people. Dynastic politics and other socio-economic constraints have kept most average citizens at a distance from actual governance and decision making. But with the dawn of the digital age, democracy can now be digitalized as well, and with the power and outreach of social media, democracy can now be made truly democratic. It is true that social media has harmed democracy in many ways: polarization of societies, creating echo chambers of people with different and oft extreme views. Also, social media companies are dominated by big tech firms that often exert biased control (and sometimes manipulation) over people’s political views. However, social media still has great potential to help in the goal of achieving that truly democratic digital democracy. Social media can act as the great equalizer in allowing everyone to voice their concerns and political opinions. It can also give governments the digital tools to gauge public sentiments and demands. It can take governance to the grass-root levels but will need some important and fundamental changes before it can achieve such lofty ideals. There is no denying that the future of democracy — much like everything else — is digital. Social media, even though it has created hurdles for democracy, has the potential to increase and improve political participation in this digital democracy.
A more Digital process will surely be the future of democracy. Digital electronic voting machines (EVMs) are already in use in the electoral process in almost all democracies worldwide. But with the widespread use of digital devices that now have the ability to confirm a user’s fingerprints (biometric locks) it is now possible to extend this and ease this process even further. It is not hard to imagine a future where governments use such digital tools in decision making and governance processes as well. But before such elaborate systems are created where a digital democracy exists in which citizens can vote in the decisions that affect their lives through digital tools, social media can act as a bridge for people to assert their democratic rights and voice their concerns to their governments. Social media certainly has the power to affect governance decisions, but it has also created problems from democracies due to some of its inherent characteristics.
While social media has uplifted democracy by giving voice to many segments of society that were previously unheard, it has nonetheless created more problems for the democratic process than it has done good for it. The first and most obvious problem it has created is the polarization of society. Democracy requires debate and discussions among different segments of society that are willing to compromise on some of their demands. Social media has created societies that are incapable of doing just that. The phenomenon of people befriending and having relationships with only people of similar political views is becoming more and more common. This is because of the phenomenon of echo chambers on social media.
Social media sites push people into separate echo chambers of like-minded people and content. People who consume more of a certain kind of content (right wing political accounts for example) are shown more and more of similar content and are increasingly pulled away from content of differing ideologies. This is due to the AI algorithms used by these sites that show their users more quantity of the content that they already consume. Netflix documentary “Social Dilemma” aptly explains that such algorithms were designed to increase user engagement and screen time (as these sites profit off of this user engagement through ads). But such algorithms have negatively affected the political environments in democracies that contain segments of society with different political views (which is considered a strength of democracy). Such algorithms on dominant social media platforms push policy makers away from further digitalizing democracy through these applications.
Furthermore, it is very hard for policymakers in most democracies to demand changes in algorithms of these large social media companies because a small number of very big companies have monopoly over them. They are generally outside of the legal jurisdiction of most countries and, as Pakistan tried to experiment with social media rules and regulations in the previous few years, they are very difficult for governments to regulate. With this large profit-seeking firms’ monopoly and control over such platforms, it is very easy to manipulate democratic processes if the company is willing (or simply is tolerant of such acts of manipulation) as was seen in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Creating a digital democracy through private for-profit firms is itself undemocratic.
Social media has also enabled populist and dictatorial leaders to take control of public discourses. The polarization and echo chambers created by social media have played right into the hands of undemocratic politicians. Public sentiments — especially people’s fears and prejudices — are manipulated by these leaders through social media platforms. By creating dangerous narratives of ‘us vs them’, democracy is being manipulated by demagogues through social media platforms. This is also making social media a very unreliable tool for propagating a more digital democracy.
It is hard to judge public sentiments and demands through social media when numbers on these platforms can be very easily manipulated. Many political parties/groups around the world employ troll farms and bot accounts — especially on twitter — that consistently manipulate the likes under tweets and numbers in hashtags that make one side seem larger than it is. Such troll farms also constantly engagement in online harassment (as shown from the multiple complaints by female journalists in Pakistan) that suppress the voices of the other side. Such troll farms and large accounts on these platforms often dominate the discourse on social media platforms.
In this space dominated by specific groups and accounts (often with very extreme views), the average citizen becomes a consumer of (this social media) democracy, rather than being an active participant. Social media was supposed to be “the great equalizer” that gives an “equal voice” to all participants of society. But it is very well known that a small number of “influencer” accounts get a much higher engagement than average users. These normal people on social media often become consumers of this digital democracy, by simply participating in the trends/demands set by these big accounts, instead of being active participants through their own voice and equal power of vote. Such characteristics of these platforms make them undemocratic by default.
However, the notion of social media platforms being a bridge towards the ultimate goal of a digital democracy is not completely unfounded. Social media platforms do have the capacity to improve political participation in today’s digital world and take us a step closer to digital democracy. If social media platforms can give voice to marginalized communities (like Pakistan’s Baloch population) and allow them to voice their concerns to a seemingly unreachable government sitting far away, it can be a very healthy sign for democracy. If such previously ignored groups can be given a chance to participate in democracy and governance through their voice on social media, it is a huge democratic win for social media.
Not only can social media highlight the sentiments and issues of marginalized communities, it can also allow governments to gauge public demands and views about a particular issue of governance/policy making. Multiple Chinese politicians have said that they consistently monitor their public’s sentiments through Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo. If numbers on social media platforms are not manipulated, these platforms can become a powerful tool for the average public to participate in governance and policy making. People could be allowed affect the decisions of their political representatives through social media. This would also improve political participation when people feel that their voice and votes are actually being heard in policy making.
Social media can, potentially, truly take governance to the grassroot level. The decisions that most affect people’s lives — especially the more local level decisions — should involve the input of the public which is often a big stakeholder in the process. Multiple cities around the world — like New York and Chicago — have experimented with public input in local budgeting. People living in a locality best know their most pressing concerns and could be given the power to vote — through digital and social media platforms — to participate in this decision-making process. But before social media platforms can ever be used by the public in impacting governance decisions, they need to go through some major changes.
Social media platforms need to be made more democratic, and their algorithms need to be changed to be more accommodating to the democratic process. First, the democratization of social media platforms would mean that the monopoly of powerful private firms over such platforms would have to be broken up. Otherwise, these companies would, as they have in the past, manipulate their content for profits. Second, the algorithms that make these platforms more conducive to populism and echo chambers will also have to be changed if these platforms are to ever become a bridge to digital democracy.
All things aside, a responsible and educated population on social media is a basic requirement for any form of democracy. In the “government by the people” section of democracy, a responsible population will be required to govern itself. Nothing will improve and increase political participation in democracy, through social media or otherwise, without a populace willing to participate in the processes.
To conclude, it can be established that the future of democracy is digital. Social media can, and should, act as a bridge in achieving that goal of digital democracy. Although social media has created multiple hindrances to democracy — by polarizing societies and giving rise to populist politics — and is inherently undemocratic — due to the monopoly of a handful of American tech firms along-with its faulty algorithms and the possibility of manipulation of numbers on those platforms. Nonetheless, social media can still be reformed, given the right sort of demand from democratic audiences and the right push from democratic governments, and can help create a more equal online presence where citizens can let their concerns and demands be known in a democratic manner. It would require a responsible citizenry, but the future of a digital democracy, with enhanced political participation from the general population can very well be realized. Only then will democracy truly be called a “government by the people.”