One Question
Social Media

One Question
Social Media

One Question is a regular series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month we ask:

Have social media become a divisive force?

With responses from: Paolo Gerbaudo, Christian Fuchs, Lizzie O’Shea, Geert Lovink, Eva Anduiza, Joss Hands, Zizi Papacharissi, Alfie Bown, Panos Kompatsiaris, Eugenia Siapera, Eran Fisher, Dal Yong Jin, Tanja Bosch.

Social Media

Paolo Gerbaudo

Director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College, London. He is the author of Tweets and the Streets (Pluto, 2012), The Mask and the Flag (Hurst, 2017), and The Digital Party (Pluto, 2018). 

It is fair to say that there has been a 180-degree turn in the debate on social media and politics. At their inception in the late 2000s, there was much hope about their democratic potential. The US Department of State Internet Freedom agenda pursued by Hillary Clinton in particular stressed how social media could be the harbinger of freedom of expression and democracy in many authoritarian countries. The Arab Spring in 2011 and the wave of movement that ensued from the Indignados in Spain to Occupy Wall Street in the US seemed to be proof of that idea.

These were indeed movements that were largely organised and mobilised on social media, hence the rather cheesy moniker ‘Facebook revolutions’ was not all that misplaced. These movements had realised the political potential of a time in which internet and social media access, for long the preserve of a tiny minority of scientists, artists, and journalists, was eventually becoming more of a mass space for ordinary people, with average income and education levels, to join the fray.

Yet in recent years, social media seem to have become in the public imagination much more a weapon for the extreme right. Notably Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and other right-wing populist insurgencies have had a very strong social media component. Furthermore, we have become aware of how much social media platforms are conducive to fake news, extremist political cultures such as the alt-right, forms of aggression and symbolic violence of all sorts, and how they embolden fanatics who were previously isolated and marginalised.

Faced with this situation it is important not to fall to prey to the ‘liberal panic’ that has become common in commentaries about the present situation, and which leads to a very pessimistic and ultimately self-defeating posture. We need to realise that we now live in a ‘plebeian’ internet, one that is more representative of the actual sentiments and views of society, including some that we as progressives would have preferred not to be too exposed to.

Rather than retreat and disengagement, or wholesale condemnation of the internet ‘deplorables’, what is required from Left activists is a great effort of political education both online and offline that may counteract the tide of right-wing populist hegemony. Young alt-right bloggers and YouTubers that are now often dominating attention need to be met with a new generation of socialist bloggers and YouTubers that may explain complex political ideas in simple way that is persuasive to social media publics, and thus turn against the present tide of resentment and xenophobia.

Christian Fuchs

Professor of media and communication studies, Co-Director of the Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) at the University of Westminster, and co-editor of the journal tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. He is the author of Social Media: A Critical Introduction (Sage, 2nd edn 2017).

The question posed is misleading because it implies that social media is doing something (‘becoming’) and is an actor that is autonomous from society and humans. Technological determinism is a logic that is based on sentences such as ‘Technology X results in Y’. ‘Social media is or is not a divisive force’ is an example of technological determinism. Social media is embedded into society and reflects in complex ways what is going on in society.

‘Social media’ such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have from their start been operated as capitalist businesses focused on accumulating capital by selling advertisements. The logic of these capitalist platforms is based on the assumption that ‘the more data and content is generated, the more likely it is that lots of people spend lots of time on the platform and that we can sell more advertisements’. Capitalist ‘social media’ are unsocial because as capitalist businesses they operate as digital tabloids that advance superficial and brief information at high speed and do not care if the content is about chocolate cookies or fascism, because the profit imperative drives them to commodity attention and selling ads.

The anti-democratic potentials of ‘social media’ that became evident with the Cambridge Analytica scandal are the consequence of social media platform’s capitalist character. It is not social media technologies that have become divisive. It is rather the capitalist character of these platforms that has rendered them unsocial, undemocratic and divisive right from the start of their existence.

The Christchurch terrorist live-broadcast on Facebook via a head-mounted camera how he murdered 50 Muslims and injured 50 more. Social media platforms were falsely blamed for enabling this form of symbolic terror. Given the Streisand effect, it might never be possible to completely take down information that has been uploaded to the Internet. One would have to abolish the technological possibility for user-generated content, which is a design option that many users would oppose. Platforms should do their best as soon as possible to take down terrorist images and videos, but their technologies are not the cause of the informational dimension terror takes on in the networked environment of the Internet.

It is not technology, but fascists such as the Christchurch terrorist who upload and live-broadcast fascist images, texts and videos. And that they do so has to do with negative transformations of society that have resulted in the emergence of authoritarian capitalism, the rise of new nationalisms, etc. One needs to fight the underlying causes of the fascist ill, not its symptoms. What can be done by mainstream media is to stop giving so much attention to terror and fascism as spectacle, and to tell different stories, namely how citizens express solidarity with victims’ families via social media and how anti-fascists use social media.

We need to change the context and structure of ‘social media’ in order to make them truly social. This requires the advancement of public service Internet platforms, platform co-operatives, and new formats such as Club 2.0 that advance political debates that overcome filter bubbles and post-truth politics.

Lizzie O’Shea

Lawyer and writer. Her commentary is featured regularly on national television programs and radio, usually about law, digital technology, corporate responsibility, and human rights. In print, her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Guardian, and Sydney Morning Herald, among others. Her book, Future Histories (Verso, 2019), looks at radical social movements and theories from history, and applies them to debates we have about digital technology today.

‘When you give everyone a voice and give people power, the system usually ends up in a really good place,’ declared Mark Zuckerberg back in 2012, with a paradoxical combination of naiveté and disingenuousness. After originally dismissing the idea that his platform had an impact on the 2016 election as ‘crazy’, he is now inviting regulation on an acknowledgement that Facebook has too much power.

It is not my usual practice to agree with Zuckerberg on much, but I find myself aligned generally with the idea that a greater democratisation of power is a worthy goal. The problem, of course, is that this is not at all what Facebook was designed to do. Quite the opposite, it is a company – just like those other titans of technology capitalism, Google and Amazon – which has always been ambitious about centralising control of our data, so it can be translated into profit.

These platforms curate audiences, nudge and render our personalities and groom us as consumers. Their business model is about time on device. Anything polarising or comforting is perfect for the medium because it prevents us from looking away. It keeps us there, even when we don’t really want to be, which increases the power of platforms as sellers of our eyeball time. The upshot is that social media platforms benefit financially from creating ‘a dynamic where people are pulled to the extremes,’ as Maciej Cegłowski has observed. The more we inhabit their carefully constructed digital ecosystems, the more these companies will be able to monetise this in a grand and insidious manner.

Social media, insofar as it is a profit making exercise, has always been designed as a divisive force. These companies aim to divide us from exercising our autonomy, from writing our history of our sense of self, from congregating authentically around universal ideas of justice and fairness. Sometimes we manage to find ways to do these things anyway, but it is not because of social media, but rather in spite of its business model.

We can resist. We can limit our dependency on the platform, practice linking away from platforms, and cultivate social spaces in responsible ways. We can support calls for the break up of big platforms and insist on limits on the sale of data to third parties. We can also show solidarity with workers in these companies who are organising around social and industrial demands. Our aim should be to break the business model of social media companies, to expropriate Zuckerberg and his ilk, and in doing so, begin to unleash the true possibilities of the digital age.

Geert Lovink

Media theorist, internet critic and author of Social Media Abyss (Wiley, 2016) and Sad by Design (Pluto, 2019). He is the founder of the Institute of Network Cultures at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (HvA).

‘Penser, c’est anticiper.’ Michel Serres

We can no longer afford to reduce the ‘social media question’ to a mapping exercise. The impact that platform capitalism is having on society is well known and monitored daily, by each of us. In regressive times, when right-wing populism is on the rise, social media platforms are identified as major contributors. Now that phone and society have merged, the algo-bias analysis can easily become a chicken-egg story in which we are dazzled by cause and effect feedback loops that parade on the same platforms that we try to investigate. We still do not know how to reflect in real-time. Occasionally we get a glance into the ‘black magick’ inside the box when we find out about You Tube’s demonetisation or the role of behaviour scientists at Facebook that modify the Newsfeed, but then our speedy lives move on.

What’s made a difference is Silicon Valley’s miscalculation concerning the political class that was supposed to be rendered irrelevant, corrupt and incapable. Tech giants mistakenly presumed that they were able to buy influence in Washington and Brussels through traditional lobby and think tank efforts, but that may not have worked out. So after Russiagate and Cambridge Analytica, the ‘fake news’ regulation machine is finally speeding up. Proposals are a decade late, but at least sound determined: should monopolies be split up (breaking up Facebook from Instagram), data from Google search engines be shared, profiles be decoupled from services? However, this is only going to happen if the Western political class feels existentially threatened by the now dominant social media, as their ways of ‘manufacturing consent’ through traditional channels such as radio, television and the printed press no longer work.

As we’re not there yet, Silicon Valley will merely have to tweak, moderate and filter bits and pieces. The tech elite remain unintimidated as the world fails to deal with the real power of their hidden infrastructure (e.g. datacentres, sea cables) and their take-over of underlying technical protocols. As long as users remain hooked, advertisers will pay, and everything will be business as usual.

Instead of joining the regulation chorus, internet activists have been working on structural solutions for a considerable time. The Unlike Us network of our Institute of Network Cultures has been around since 2010. Snowdon’s revelations date back to June 2013. For the liberal moderates amongst you there is the Tim Berners-Lee Solid alternative. Others dream of a ‘public stack’ that reintroduces the internet as a public infrastructure.

It is time to move away from the dominant platforms. It is not enough to unfollow, delete Facebook, get rid of the apps. It is not enough to complain about the loss of our privacy: it is time to migrate, together. Switch to Signal or Telegram, use Mastedon, forget Google Maps and use Open Maps, install Duck Duck Go as your default search engine, browse with Firefox, buy a Fairphone, find alternatives for Amazon, AirBnB and Uber, the list goes on. We will need to have our own infrastructure, otherwise ‘decentralisation’ will remain an empty phrase. Scaling down is what needs to be done, creating organised networks, strong instead of weak links. Pity the bots that pretend we’re ‘friends’. The exodus from the platforms has commenced.

Eva Anduiza

Professor of Political Science at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona where she is also an ICREA Academia research fellow. She directs the research group on Democracy, Elections and Citizenship and until recently also directed the Master in Political Science. She is currently a 2018-19 fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University.

I would highlight two characteristics of social media that have challenging implications for democracy. The first one is the emotional load that social media carry and spread. Social media disseminate political information, which is good, but they often do so in a way that generates negative emotions, like anger. Anger typically appears when we foreground the moral outrage generated by someone’s wicked actions. Emotional content captures more attention and generates more engagement (more likes, or more retweets) than neutral content. This produces incentives for more emotional social media content with a view to engage people more often and for longer. It is easy to see how this can contribute to increasing affective polarisation, that is, negative feelings towards those who are different, or that belong to social or political outgroups, such as, for instance, supporters of another party.

The second characteristic of social media to be highlighted is that, by exposing people to political information, they modestly increase levels of factual knowledge, but they substantially increase feelings of political competence. People exposed to social media news feeds consider themselves better informed than their levels of actual knowledge justify. These feelings of subjective political competence are usually considered to be positive for the functioning of democracy: democracy needs citizens that see themselves as capable of understanding politics and thus participate. However, taken to the extremes this perception of self-competence may lead to intellectual arrogance, the impression that your view on an issue is the only valid one.

Both anger and perceptions of self-political competence as by-products of social media are closely related to populist attitudes, which are typically considered a threat to liberal democracy. Populist attitudes involve a conception of politics as the fight between the good ‘people’, whose will must prevail, and the evil outrageous ‘elite’. Some important elements of liberal democracy that involve respect for diversity, minority rights, compromise and limits to the majority are viewed as problematic within this populist perspective. And high levels of populist attitudes are more likely when people are both angry about something and feeling empowered.

In social media, as in many other cases, the very same characteristics that constitute our virtues, are also our faults. The emotions and the efficacy generated by social media can facilitate massive processes of political participation for positive political change, such as the Occupy or #metoo movements. But social media can also enhance affective polarisation and populism. These aspects are not the ones usually considered when talking about regulation in social media. Other issues such as data ownership, misinformation, or privacy are, of course, also very important. But these attitudinal consequences also deserve attention. They confront us with some difficult questions. Should social media stop making generation of high levels of engagement among users their primary goal? How can they promote the intellectual humility necessary to consider each other’s views and to accept the diversity that is crucial for democracy?

Joss Hands

Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Newcastle University, UK. He is author of @ Is for Activism: Dissent, Resistance and Rebellion in a Digital Culture (Pluto, 2011) and Gadget Consciousness: Collective Thought, Will and Action in the Age of Social Media (Pluto, 2019). He is also one of the series editors for the ‘Digital Barricades’ series, published by Pluto Press.

The history of activism and social media is born with a radical and progressive tendency, but one might say with a nascent capacity for destruction and division. The early dreamers of the power of social media (which we can classify as the chatrooms and blogs of the World Wide Web, as well as its precursors of Usenet, and even the phone phreaks of early hacker culture) professed a desire for a common humanity and an inherent urge to freedom, in particular free expression. This tendency was famously evident, for example, with the Zapatistas, the indigenous rights movement of Chiapas Mexico, that spread in the early 1990s through email lists and early web sites, to be a cause of global solidarity. There is a lineage from this to the flowering of the anti-capitalism of the late 1990s and early 2000s and the ‘coming of age’ of this movement in Seattle in 1999 in the protests against the WTO, and from there the birth of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2001 – all of these were facilitated, and to an extent characterised by, their use of horizontal networked ‘social’ media. This capacity for horizontal democratic self-organisation is something that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri see as a constituent aspect of ‘multitude’.

However, the libertarian roots of early social media, which prize negative liberty over positive cooperation, can become correlated with a parallel tendency that leads to what I have called ‘power-law’ democracy, based on the power-law distribution that is understood in graph theory. This is associated with the scale-free nature of distributed networks, of which modern commercial social media such as Twitter and Facebook can still be counted. This is the propensity for links (follows or retweets on Twitter, or Likes on Facebook) to cluster around particular nodes, and to do so without limits, whereby for example on Twitter we see a very ‘long tail’ – that is a handful of accounts with many millions of followers, and many millions of accounts with a handful of followers.

This tendency starts to look something like populism, wherein in theory everybody can have their say, but in reality, there is clustering round leaders or ‘hubs’. We then end up with ever fewer hubs in competition with each other, hardening their positions and feeding contestation and conflict rather than deliberation. This may fit well into a theory of radical or agonistic democracy – but it also seems likely that it is undermining democracy all together when it results in the rise of the extreme right. What we are getting is the emboldening of groups with entirely variant ontologies that don’t even share an agreed reality. It is this tendency that has clearly been in the ascendancy, certainly since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the financial crisis of 2007/8.

This can only be reversed by the collective action of some kind of networked joint intelligence or active general intellect acting to impose a counter force against power-law democracy, something built around deliberative cooperation and a commitment to the common. That may mean a struggle for common ownership and control of social media platforms, but must also involve a rolling back of the neoliberal logic that mistakes aggregation of numbers in markets (the logic of the power-law) for democracy.

Zizi Papacharissi

Professor and Head of the Communication Department, Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and University Scholar at the University of Illinois System. She has published nine books, over 70 journal articles and book chapters, and serves on the editorial board of fifteen journals. She is presently working on her 10th book, titled After Democracy, with Yale University Press.

The internet, including the many social media platforms that it supports, is not a magical space. It cannot create something out of nothing. Net based technologies, that is, so-called social media, open up more paths to connection. Those paths do not always lead to democratic outcomes. The internet connects democratically oriented people; it also connects fascists. Research has shown, time and time again, that social media pluralise expression but do not inherently democratise discourse or societies.

Social media do not create these problems and are not able to extinguish them completely either. But they do make hate speech more visible, easily spreadable and more accessible. Social media amplify voices, which is a wonderful gift for underrepresented publics and marginalised issues. Yet they do not amplify on equal terms. Some voices become louder than others online, and in the process mitigate our ability to speak, listen and be heard; to tell stories that connect us and identify us without dividing us.

Social media do not make or break elections. They do not make or break movements. They do not make or break democracies. Social media do not tell us what to think, but they provide information that informs what we think about, and vocabulary (through news, fake news, gifs, memes, videos, podcasts, etc.) that forms how we think and frame issues. Social media often intensify movements, discourses, and processes in ways that enable populism, and make it easy for leaders with populist proclivities to be elevated to prominence. They are a platform. They connect; they also divide.

More importantly, social media enable acts of symbolic impact. But do not expect this impact to be instant, political, socio-cultural, legislative or economic. All too often, we are swayed by the virality with which information spreads online, and we think change will follow in an equally speedy manner. When it does not, we are disappointed, in our media and our politicians. It is not just our media and politicians that have let us down, however. It is our own expectations that have misled us. Because change is gradual. And revolutions are long, in the words of Raymond Williams. In order to change our institutions, we have to reimagine them first. Social media can help us have these conversations. They enable pathways to power, albeit liminal, ephemeral and evanescent.

As for the future of social media and regulation, I think it is important to educate and regulate. Just doing one without the other is meaningless. We do need to regulate these platforms as media, in ways that safeguard our democracy and evolve beyond the oversimplifying argument of free speech that these conversations often get trapped into. Other countries have been able to do it without stifling freedom of expression. So can we.

But we also need to educate and train engineers to design these spaces in ways that enhance democracy. We must encourage journalists to use these spaces for the benefit of democracy and not just profit. Finally, as citizens, we must train our ears, our eyes, our minds to look away from clickbait. In an attention economy, our attention is our power. It is our path to agency. We must learn to turn our attention to those who truly deserve it, no matter what social media platform we find ourselves traversing.

Alfie Bown

Lecturer in Media Arts at Royal Holloway University London. He is author of, Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero, 2015), The Playstation Dreamworld (Polity, 2017) and In the Event of Laughter (Bloomsbury, 2018). He tweets @leftist_gamer.

At least since the Trump election and Leave.EU campaign in the UK, suspicion about social media has been rife. As is well documented, both campaigns recruited the infamous Cambridge Analytica, a company which promised to revolutionise political campaigning. Social media has been used in campaigning at least since the 2008 Obama election, but Cambridge Analytica took this a stage further, using a form of ‘psychometric profiling’ that infers from political allegiances, specific personality types and emotional states from likes on Facebook, and then algorithmically directs tailored political content to their newsfeeds. This enabled them to reach the voters they anticipated would be most susceptible to their clients’ ideologies. People were manipulated via social media, more divided than ever in a world where we never see what our fellow voters do, an ultimate form of ‘cyberbalkanisation’, or so the argument goes.

I argue (along with my collaborator James Smith, who has a book coming out around these topics) that in fact the greatest problem here is the set of underlying assumptions upon which this ‘suspicious’ attitude towards social media relies.

It is not clear quite how much Cambridge Analytica helped either Trump or Leave.EU, and the likelihood is that its effect has been overstated. The problem is that many people, often among the liberals and even on the Left, take up this view of people as zombies and sheeple who are manipulated and managed by these new techniques, as if those people have no say in the matter. In a weird twist, the attitude we often seem to take toward social media and its powers of persuasion today echoes the Chan board language of the alt-Right, where non-users are seen as ‘normies’ imprisoned in a false matrix in which they are helpless and oblivious, blindly accepting what they have been sold by the mainstream.

If the Left is to have any hope in the digital future, it needs to get away from this conception of social media as divisive because people are essentially not capable of thinking for themselves. Instead, we need to recognise that social media is in many ways contributing to how we are separated (more than connected) from each other, but also that the way out of this is not to critique social media as a whole. It’s here to stay, whether we like it or not, so we need to treat people as ‘active’ users and put ourselves to work in progressive ways online, rather than thinking everyone is a manipulated idiot. That’s the first step, anyway.

Panos Kompatsiaris

Assistant Professor of Art and Media at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. His first monograph The Politics of Contemporary Art Biennials: Spectacles of Critique, Art and Theory (Routledge, 2017) looks at the politics of art biennials in the context of neoliberalism and its crisis. He is currently co-editing a volume on the sociology of creativity and a special journal issue on art and value for the Journal of Cultural Economy.

The question of regulating social media so as to protect communities from intolerance and hate speech reflects larger questions around cultural and media policy in liberal democracies. According to the most fundamental liberal (and libertarian) credo, everyone is allowed to express their opinions, and disagreements can be solved through civic deliberation. This is the belief in the idea that the virtues and openness of civil society can overcome misanthropic hate. Yet this opinion is not only naïve but dangerous.

Social media is an arena of social antagonism just like any other forum in which political opinions and ideologies struggle for publicity, visibility and legitimacy. In the shift to the even more authoritarian capitalism we are experiencing today, social media has proved particularly useful for extreme right-wing ideologues and even Neo-nazis to promote their discourse of hate and make themselves felt, perceived and heard in the context of what Jacques Rancière calls the given ‘distribution of the sensible’. While established media oligopolies would be reluctant to (at least) openly promote the extreme right in the fear of being called out as ‘Nazis’, social media has helped neo-Nazis to overcome this, offering potential for social recognition.

In European countries like Greece, we saw how the rise of an explicitly Nazi political formation gained power precisely through the manipulation of social media. In the USA, the alt-right uninhibitedly promoted its imagery and built bonds online through speech dressed up in pseudo anti-institutional rhetoric, against straw man concepts like ‘cultural Marxism’ or ‘political correctness’. Reactionary figures like Milo Yiannopoulos or Jordan Peterson rose to fame precisely through exploiting the affordances of social media for self-branding, masquerading their attack on struggles for equality as a ‘protest’ against a supposed establishment. Thus, the Trump era puts pressure on the myth of libertarianism as a progressive force as represented by the ‘Californian Ideology’ (many around this new right present themselves as libertarian), a myth that endured during the long (and happy) 1990s and now seems to crumble.

This rise of political hate formations attests to the fact that certain information and cultural forms need to be subject to censorship. The question is not only how censorship can be implemented so that it does not threaten larger public rights or victimise the ‘censored’, but also from which political position one would proceed in implementing censorship. To proceed in censoring from within the very ideology of libertarianism may eventually prove inadequate, since libertarianism poses itself as explicitly against censorship. To imagine a real public control of social media would mean to imagine how these corporations could be run from an emancipatory perspective by the most vulnerable parts of our societies, involving the working class, women of colour and sexual minorities.

Eugenia Siapera

Professor and Head of the School of Information and Communication Studies at University College Dublin. Her research focuses on digital media corporations, digital journalism, and digital racism and misogyny. Her most recent book is the second edition of Understanding New Media (Sage, 2018). Along with Debbie Ging she has co-edited a special issue on Online Misogyny for the journal Feminist Media Studies and a book on Gender Hate Online (2019, Palgrave).

I will begin addressing this question by focusing on the ‘media’ part: media mediate in the sense both of bridging/bringing together and of going in-between, thereby introducing a new element to a non-mediated, ‘immediate’ relationship. This can offer some insight into the character of social media: on the one hand they bring people together, while on the other they introduce a third element into the relationship that does not belong to it properly.

Debates over social media tend to reflect emphases on one or the other element. Early in the history of social media, for example during the Arab Spring or Occupy, the focus was on the first part, the togetherness. People were brought together, organised online but occupied the streets, and sought to bring political change. Since that moment, the focus has been on the other function, that of introducing ‘foreign’ elements to a relationship. A series of revelations, from Snowden to Cambridge Analytica, have shown that social media can be instruments of surveillance and control, while right-wing terrorist attacks, from London’s Finsbury Park mosque to Christchurch, have shown that social media can allow hate and extremism to flow from one place to another and to spill into the streets.

However, it is crucial to note here that in all this it is not the social media that have changed: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have functioned in more or less the same manner since they were first introduced. But there have been important political developments, working in ways that have frustrated and effectively ignored demands for political change, justice and equality, as articulated both online and in the streets in various movements. In these terms, it seems disingenuous to suggest that social media are divisive and undermine democracy.

At the same time, accepting that media in all their forms introduce new elements to relationships requires that these elements are identified and subjected to critique. What do social media add to or otherwise change in how we relate to one another? Here it can be argued that they individuate us through more and more personalisation and customisation of what we see and to whom we connect. Additionally, they structure what we see in specific ways through algorithms, and these are directly linked to their business models, which rely on extracting data from users to then sell to advertisers. They further operate within a primarily liberal ideology of a-historical individualism and ‘meritocracy’, which ends up privileging those who are already in positions of power.

All this points to the limits of regulation as an answer to the current malaise. Firstly, it cannot solve political problems of social justice and equality; secondly, it cannot force corporations to cease trading for profit; thirdly, it cannot regulate away problematic forms of individuating people. This does not mean that regulation cannot be used to deal with some of the symptoms of broader political issues that are manifested online. The most pressing of these are rampant racist and misogynist hate speech and the allowances and facilities offered to right-wing extremist groups and ideologies. But ultimately, the answer to problems flagged, but not caused by social media can only be political action that either expropriates such corporations or that aims to build new kinds of media that serve people not profit.

Eran Fisher

Senior Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication at the Open University of Israel. He studies the link between digital media technology and society. His books include Media and New Capitalism in the Digital Age (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), Internet and Emotions, co-edited with Tova Benski (Routledge, 2014), and Reconsidering Value and Labour in the Digital Age, co-edited with Christian Fuchs (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Popular accounts focus on the polarisation of expressions on social media and the viral distribution of fake news as exacerbating political divisiveness. But underlying this apparent layer of content lies another, less visible structural layer to which we need to be attentive. Social media is divisive by construction. It divides society to two classes, those who own the means of producing knowledge from big data and those who labour to produce that data. Shifting the gaze from the content of social media (text) to the underlying media platforms where it is produced (technology), allows us to lay bare the divisive social relations that are the condition and the outcome of these platforms.

A handful of private companies now control the transportation of an immense traffic of data (text, communication, meta-data, information, etc.). According to The Economist, data – through algorithms, artificial intelligence and neural network analysis – has become ‘the new oil’ of capitalism. More critical voices have underscored the alarming ramifications of this structural constellation, dubbing it the ‘big data divide’. We should discern three facets of this divide: economic, epistemic, and democratic. Together they pose a serious political threat to be reckoned with.

Economically, quite in tune with older forms of capitalism, information capitalism is also founded on the extraction of value-producing labour by capital. Alas, in this phase of capitalism it is immaterial labour – involving cognitive, emotional, interpersonal communicative facets of human life – which is mobilised for the accumulation process. As these labour powers are best exercised as part of our mundane, everyday life, mostly through expressive and communicative channels, social media becomes a perfect ‘factory’ for their extraction and rendering. And only a handful of social media platforms have access to the quantities of data and computational powers needed to render this form of human labour into commodities.

Social media also offer a new way of knowing humans, individually and collectively; it ushers in a new epistemology. As data on media platforms is attributed to individuals, algorithmic epistemology is able to gauge our tastes, wants, and anxieties. This allows media platforms an unprecedented knowledge of individuals. And as these media are highly personalised it also enables them to interfere with the very foundations of what makes human beings free: thought-processes, assumptions, knowledge of facts, etc.

Lastly, social media has become ideally and actually the most important public sphere in contemporary democracy. In addition to its shortcomings and biases acting on the discursive layer (such as polarisation, filter bubbles, and echo chambers), we also need to note that our most fundamental device for a thriving democracy has become one of the most centralised, opaque and undemocratic institutions. To the extent that our public sphere is provided by social media it is hosted by an illiberal and undemocratic sovereign. We may have free access to content on social media but almost zero access to the rules governing what gets published or not, by whom, and how.

The exacerbation of inequality and divisibility in economic, epistemic and democratic terms, brought about by social media, calls into question the most fundamental political assumptions of modernity pertaining to the link between information freedom and human freedom.

Dal Yong Jin

Professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. His books include Korea’s Online Gaming Empire (MIT, 2010), Digital Platforms, Imperialism, and Popular Culture (Routledge, 2015), New Korean Wave: Transnational Cultural Power in the Age of Social Media (University of Illinois, 2016), and Smartland Korea: Mobile Communication, Culture and Society (2017, University of Michigan).

Social media has become one of the most significant forces in the early 21st century. From platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube developed in the US, to Naver and Kakao in Korea and QQ and Baidu in China, social media has fundamentally influenced people’s everyday activities. It has especially proved its potential to facilitate democratisation and mass organisation evidenced in several socio-political movements, including the Arab Spring of 2010 and Occupy Wall Street in 2011. Several civic movement groups and anti-government protesters utilise various social media, in particular Twitter and Facebook, to organise rallies, protests, and meetings. Social media also acts as a news outlet to spread these activities to global citizens.

Of course, right-wing politicians and big corporations fiercely appropriate social media. Facebook is sometimes leveraged by data corporations linked with US politicians to conduct national persuasion campaigns that rely upon the exploitation of user data, as shown in the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal that occurred during the 2014 American midterm elections. Several politicians, including Donald Trump himself, utilise Twitter and Facebook as propaganda tools. Facebook, Twitter, and Google are especially major players in Washington DC as primary lobbyists, which means that the nexus of the government and giant social media firms has deepened. These new developments certainly undermine democracy and help promote extreme right-wing discourses. Social media, therefore, works as a double-edged sword in our contemporary society.

In recent years, due to several problems involving identity theft, fake news scandals and the commodification of platforms and user data, social media has slightly lost its driving impetus. Many Facebook users, for example, are worried about security issues, and some have stopped using it. Consequently, social media’s influence and impact on people’s lives have lessened. This does not mean that social media will disappear in the near future, as several new forms continue to appear.

Under these circumstances, it is vital to resolve two urgent issues negatively affecting social media. On the one hand, it is critical to develop security measures. For example, even after several incidents of theft, social media has not been able to fully protect people’s identities. Fake news is another security issue, which should be regulated by the public sector. On the other hand, social media must develop a win-win strategy with users. Facebook users put a lot of time and energy into the platform which effectively functions as free labour. Although the owners of social media won’t pay users for their time, they should put some money into enhancing society, such as by creating scholarship opportunities and community engagements. As some of the largest information technology firms in the world, they have to think about ways in which they can return some profits to society.

Tanja Bosch

Associate Professor of Media Studies and Production in the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, where she also holds the position of Deputy Dean of Research and Postgraduate Affairs. Her first book, Broadcasting Democracy: Radio and Identity in South Africa, was published by the HSRC Press in 2017. She is currently working on a second monograph titled Social Media and Everyday Life in South Africa (Routledge, forthcoming 2020).

Social networking sites have become a pervasive feature of everyday modern life. People increasingly use location-based technologies to represent themselves through social media, documenting and archiving everyday experiences to perform aspects of their identity. People often rely on social media as a source of news; and in turn it often plays an agenda setting role for the mainstream mass media. Moreover, social media has played a key role in democratising political debates, creating a virtual public sphere and a platform for geographically and politically disparate individuals to engage in dialogue. In the absence of such offline opportunities and platforms, social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter create a space for people to talk about politics, and potentially shape public opinion on controversial or contested topics.

Twitter in particular has been highlighted for its potential to create networked communities of action through the affordances of the platform. The use of hashtags has led to what has been referred to as hashtag activism, or the formation of ad hoc issue publics organised by hashtags, for example in the case of #FeesMustFall, the national student protests in South Africa during 2015-2017. The Arab Spring was the first such instance of networked resistance, which firmly placed social media on the agenda as a key tool for political activism.

However, the increase of fake news, most often spread via social media; and the consequent use of bots to spread misinformation has led to claims of social media being a potentially divisive force, with processes of polarisation privileging certain positions. The growth of alt-right Twitter communities, and the prevalence of online extremists and hate speech, are examples frequently cited in support of this argument. In addition, while the techno optimists often flag the potential of the internet to give voice, the danger is that everyone speaks but nobody listens.

Another danger is the potential for the creation of echo chambers, where people circulate within homogenous networks. Facebook ‘unfriending’ of people with whom one disagrees politically, or who display views perceived as unprogressive or conservative, has already been flagged as one such strategy for the perpetuation of information silos. There’s also the question of confirmation bias, or the idea that people seek out information to confirm existing views and avoiding online content that challenges their beliefs.

We should remember that social media is not neutral and should be considered within the broader context of the power relations that govern the production, distribution and use of information on platforms such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp etc. Algorithmic bias can lead to us not always viewing all available information on social media sites.

In order to create true democratic dialogue, social media needs to be used for robust debate. So yes, social media – like many other spaces – can potentially be divisive. But in the absence of offline platforms for political debate, it still has the potential to play a key role as a conversation space, even if the conversation is not always inclusive or progressive.