Social media roles in cyberdemocracy

The concept of democracy existed before the development of mass media, both among the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy) in North America and in ancient Greece. In these settings, people sat together to share information, listen to others, analyse the situation and discuss issues and options before taking collective action. The Haudenosaunee longhouse and the ancient Greek agora were public meeting spaces designed to enable dialogue and democratic deliberation. Most media today is not designed specifically for fostering dialogue, encouraging empathy or supporting democracy. The design of most major social media platforms, in particular, seems to exacerbate polarisation between groups. Nevertheless, social media is empowering “netizens”, citizens using the internet for civic engagement, and contributing to “cyberdemocracy”—the use of social media technologies to increase public participation in governance. information is fundamental for citizen engagement in politics. News media that investigates those in powerful positions, and that provides a narrative analysis of diverse stakeholder interests contributes to a democracy where the government is accountable to citizens. In a pluralist democracy, people have

Tabic 2.1 Levels of Information, Democracy and Conflict



Pcace/Conflict Social Cohesion/ Polarisation





  • • Disinformation
  • • Misinformation

• Authoritarian rule

  • • Civil or international war
  • • Foreign cyberattacks
  • • Nonstate terror group mobilisation
  • • Structural violence
  • • Direct violence

Some Information, Democracy, Peace

• Speeches or superficial reporting of basic facts

  • • Representative democracy
  • • Competitive elections
  • • Contested elections
  • • Negative peace
  • • Nonviolent social movements
  • • Affect polarisation

More Information, Democracy, Peace

  • • Investigatory journalism
  • • News and issue analysis
  • • Multi-stakeholder dialogue and empathy
  • • Solution-oriented journalism
  • • Civil society mobilisation
  • • Protection of freedom of speech, right to protest and petition, equal justice, due process
  • • Participatory, direct democracy with cultural pluralism
  • • Issue polarisation
  • • Positive peace
  • • Social cohesion

access to information about diverse members of society, with news stories that offer insights into those with different experiences and cultural backgrounds. This type of information builds empathy for people and support for pluralism and multiculturalism. This type of information can enable multi-stakeholder dialogue and can generate solutions to address the needs of diverse groups, contributing even more to a robust culture of democratic deliberation. Authoritarian governance, on the other hand, relies upon false and misleading information and emotion-triggering propaganda to manipulate public opinion.

Techno-optimists argued social media would improve democracy by empowering democracy movements and enabling more open, democratised communication without elite editorial filtering. In his book on Why Democracies Need an Unloveable Press, Michael Shudson creates a typology of media functions in democracy, including providing basic information to inform the public, playing the role of watchdog or investigator, analysing complex issues, providing a space for dialogue and an opportunity for people developing empathy for others and mobilising people to address issues (Shudson 2008). Ethan Zuckerman argues this typology' also applies to social media (Zuckerman 2018). Adapted for this book, these functions include the following, with illustrations from the case studies in this book.

By the 2000s, ordinary people were playing the role of citizen journalists by collecting information, documenting their experiences, analysing their context, sharing texts, photos and eventually videos of events. Some used social media to mobilise social movements online and participated in hackathons to generate new “civic tech” and “peace tech”. Social media technology was seen as a democratising form of media by enabling normal people to report on their context without gatekeeping by legacy media. Citizen journalists around the world used social media to document corruption and human rights abuses. Citizens participated in investigations and analysis on the “who, what, where, when, why and how” of

Table 2.2 Information Functions of Social Media

Information Function of Social Media

Examples from the Case Studies in this Book

Providing basic information

In Northern Ireland, civil society uses social media to report information on threats of violence. In Kenya, civil society created the “Ushahidi” social media platform to coordinate efforts to gather basic reports on electoral violence and to defuse rumours.

Watchdog and investigator

In Sri Lanka, civil society uses social media to investigate the sources of hate speech and threats to minority communities.

Analysing complex issues

In Colombia, civil society used social media to analyse the 2016 peace agreement in the run-up to the plebiscite.

Providing a space for debate and dialogue

In Kenya, civil society used the “Kenyans on Twitter” (KOT) group as well as the Virtual People’s Assembly to debate and exchange views and experiences on democratic governance.

Enabling empathy

In Nigeria, civil society used social media to build empathy and support for girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.


In Jordan, civil society coordinated humanitarian assistance and used the hashtag campaign #Open_the_ Borders (# 0 to support Syrian refugees. In Nigeria, citizens hold state security forces to account and report on violent extremist activity.


In Pakistan and India, civil society used social media to mobilise public support for peace between the two countries. Egyptian “netizens” used social media video streaming to advocate for human rights and democracy.

current issues. Citizens used social media to hold governments and corporations to account for public harms. Social media enabled robust public dialogue, revealing diverse stakeholder’s points of view.

Social media created virtually free methods for civil society to coordinate global actions against war, to stem climate change, to denounce sexual harassment and abuse and to coordinate to advance democracy. Nonviolent social movements began to use texting to organise street protests in the Philippines in 2001. By 2011, Twitter and Facebook became the organising sites for mobilising people power during the Arab Spring. Activists married online organising with street- based power tactics to press for human rights and democratic changes. Digital tools like cell phones with cameras and video capacities enabled local pcacebuild- ers to document peace activities.

Between 2010 and 2012, civil society activists in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere credited social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook for enabling civil society to organise mass action to hold those in power to account. While on-the-ground activists had worked for years to build social movements in the so-called “Arab Spring”, social media amplified these efforts by creating wide public awareness of protests. Social media also gave people a way to communicate and coordinate quickly. In her book Twitter and Те avgas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep Tufckci observes that social media helped people overcome isolation brought about by “pluralistic ignorance”—the lack of understanding that other people share the same grievances, hopes or ideas (Tufekci 2018).

A 2018 Pew Research study on social media and social activism found abundant examples. The hashtag #BlaekLivesMatter has appeared nearly 30 million times on Twitter to help mark and sort conversations on race, violence and policing. In the first two months after women on Twitter asked each other to post #McToo to report on sexual harassment and abuse, nearly 2 million people used the hashtag. The Pew report finds that two-thirds of Americans believe that social media plays a vital role in citizen engagement and drawing attention to issues that political leaders need to address (Anderson ct al. 2018). During the two weeks, following the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, people used the #BlackLives- Matter hashtag nearly 50 million times (Anderson et al. 2020).

Social media offers civil society more opportunities to voice their experiences and political preferences, as well as to hold the government to account. The World Bank and other development agencies use social media to improve the state-society relationship by creating platforms where governments can hear directly from citizens to identify concerns, brainstorm solutions and share information related to public issues. Policymakers respond to constituent “noise” or pressure. Without social media, elected officials in some countries encounter far more “noise” from corporations with lobbyists pressing and rewarding officials who respond to corporate interests, often at the expense of public' interests and social goods.

Information channelled via social media contributes to democracy because of its speed, scale, scope, searchability, space, speech freedom, sticker price, simplicity and social confidence; nine of the 12 “s” words reviewed in Chapter 1. But two of the other “s” words—secrecy and surveillance—offer capabilities more useful to authoritarian governments and violent extremist groups intent on undermining democracy and waging violent conflict.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >