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.
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. READ MORE