DF Seminar Report ‘The Impact of Social Media on Democracy’, 16 October 2014

The Democracy Forum held another successful and well-attended seminar at the House of Commons on October 16, entitled ‘The Impact of Social Media on Democracy’. Sir Peter Luff, chairman of the DF, welcomed the audience of around 45 people and introduced the four members of the panel: Carl Miller, Co-founder and Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, DEMOS; Dr Veronica Barassi, Lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Global Media & Democracy, Goldsmiths College; Dr Nick Anstead, Lecturer & Programme Director, Dept of Media & Communications, London School of Economics; and  Ben O’Loughlin, Professor of International Relations at the Dept of Politics and International Relations, Royal Holloway, University of London. He then introduced the seminar theme by saying that his experience had led him to feel that ‘social media brings us into ghettos of mutual reinforcement’ and invited the panel’s opinions on whether democracy might be diminished rather than enhanced because of this.

Dr Veronica Barassi spoke first, with a presentation titled Conflicting temporalities: internet time and the time for democracy’.  In recent decades, she said, we have seen a major shift in our forms of collective time consciousness, with the internet and mobile technology creating ‘a temporal context which valorises immediate communication, continuous connectivity and technological dependency’ and she considered how this was transforming political practices in the context of social activism. One way is to make protest more effective, enabling speed and facility of collective action. Another is empowerment through ‘emotional contagion’. But ‘immediacy is a double-edged sword’, posing challenges in three different ways: visibility, political reflection and the temporality of insurgent networks. Firstly, to be visible on social media it’s necessary to produce content constantly and many political activists are giving up other forms of political engagement to keep up on social media.

Secondly, the content of information must be short, immediate and ‘catchy’, allowing little opportunity for proper political discussion or complex reflection. Thirdly, while activists may see social media platforms as advantageous in building strategic alliances, these are frequently ‘weak ties’ and do not translate into long-term political projects. Dr Barassi concluded by saying that ‘the cult of acceleration’ had become a ‘cultural disease’, that democracy ‘requires time…for exchange and confrontation, for collective reasoning…, for the creation of consensus’ and she believes that the question of internet time needs to be placed at the very top of the research agenda.

Carl Miller’s presentation was ‘Digital democracy: has social media opened up meaningful new pathways to collective decision-making?’ and he argued from the perspective that, while social media may have changed the way we engage with politics, it’s had very little impact on democratic decision making. It has changed politics in two important ways, he said. Firstly, it has given rise to ‘digital power politics’ outside of Westminster, engaging young people and activists who are largely disengaged from mainstream politics, and creating a multitude of pressure groups. He cited examples such as the English Defence League, which started as a Facebook group with a street wing, and Bepe Grillo, the Italian comedian who formed a political party solely through social media. He predicted something similar will happen in the UK, with the rise of the ‘insurgent, angry voice’ from both left and right. The second way that social media has changed politics is the way it’s changing the approach to elections, because mainstream parties are now competing in the social media arena and seeking to reach voters online. Part of the work of DEMOS is to analyse Twitter feeds, which shows that politicians are ‘being dragged onto a platform that hates them’. Carl Miller said that anti-establishment groups are doing very well on social media, but DEMOS is frustrated by the lack of collective decision-making achieved. He suggested two ways this might happen: first, by finding ways for politicians not only to broadcast on social media, but to listen to people, a sort of ‘Vox Digitas’. Secondly, he speculated that digital democracy might mean moving away from FB and Twitter and finding a consensus from different strands of society through a platform similar to Wikipedia, but based on democratic values rather than evidential material. He concluded that now is the time to ‘build bridges between the angry voices and institutions’, otherwise social media could become a harmful rather than empowering tool.

Dr Nick Anstead wondered whether our current political institutions are fit for purpose in the digital age, with his presentation ‘Connected, disconnected, reconnected publics?’  Since 1950 there has been a decline in traditional forms of democratic engagement and in party membership, with political parties becoming more ‘professionalised’ and a perception from the public that politicians don’t listen to them. Dr Anstead asked whether technology can help us reconnect with politics in this age of ‘political disconnect’, which he ascribed in part to the ‘democratic malaise’ of the post-financial crisis. He said that one way in which governments around the world are trying to reconnect with their citizens is through ‘Big Data’, which in theory could enable them to respond ‘more efficiently to the shifting needs and preferences of the public’. However, he was concerned that this did not really address the underlying, grassroots causes of ‘disconnect’ and could possibly alienate citizens still further. There was a danger of ‘data apartheid’, where private companies control what data gets seen, and a question of how transparent big data collection by governments will be: ‘Will the public be given access to the frivolous while important information is held by governments and big corporations?’ He concluded by saying that’ big data collection is just one new media-facilitated technique with the potential to reconnect citizens and politics’ but we must beware of thinking that technology can ‘fix politics’, when it may indeed estrange citizens still further. On an optimistic note, he felt that there may be less cause for concern about democracy than we imagine, and quoted David Runciman, who said ‘Democracy is a permanent state of crisis.’

Professor Ben O’Loughlin drew the presentations to a close with a presentation entitled ‘How should journalists report social media politics?’ He drew heavily on a research project he’s been involved with, which since 2009 has analysed how public opinion forms on Twitter. The research is not just concerned with who will win elections or referendums, but with how public opinion is forming and how different groups are talking to each other – for example, ‘why are there more boos than shouts?’ He described Twitter as becoming ‘a swirling propaganda platform’ and asked whether it is possible for journalists to report on Tweets in a non-sensationalist way. Professor O’Loughlin also looked at internationalisation and how governments are in ‘a battle to influence’ public opinion in other countries. He gave examples of the different approaches used by State Departments and Foreign Offices in the US, UK, Sweden and France and sees a hierarchy of influence in which wealthier countries have advantages over poorer ones. He also referred to the issue of ‘controlled spaces’ creating a problem for democratization, because at the same time as encouraging democracy, social media is being used to monitor it and ‘nudge’ it the way we want it to go. He concluded by saying that ‘coverage of the 2010 United Kingdom election suggests that the use of social media as a tool to under-stand and illustrate public opinion is starting to enter into mainstream media discourse.’

Questions and observations were taken from a broad section of the mixed audience, including Media & Communications students and academics from the University of Westminster, the University of Sussex and London Metropolitan University. Amongst the many issues addressed were the differences between  social media use and old-fashioned propaganda, China’s effective use of ‘Big Data’ and Mike Gapes MP noted the phenomenon of ‘email bombing’, where pressure groups such as 38 Degrees bombard MPs with thousands of emails a day, making it necessary to develop strategies for replying. And both Sir Peter Luff and the Ambassador for the Embassy of Iraq in London wondered how we can address the problem of extremist groups such as IS using the internet so effectively to radicalize young people and recruit them to their terrorist cause. Carl Miller replied by saying that activists trying to overthrow tyrannical regimes can use social media in the same way and considers social media to pose the greatest threat to the State rather than democracy itself. Ben O’Loughlin responded by saying his research had led to the conclusion that television, rather than the internet, radicalizes people. While people can share their discontent using social media, watching TV can engender a sense that we are alone in our anger at injustice, which makes people more likely to become radicals.

Peter Luff concluded the seminar by thanking the panel and the audience for an extremely stimulating, pertinent and interesting debate.