Being that social media is a “medium easily accessible for both the source as well as the receiver”, citizens not only have the ability to create but also consume media freely; “connecting, networking and voicing out opinions” (Govindarajan & Ravindar, 2016, p. 4). That being said, Jha and Kodila-Tedik (2019) suggest that “the liberation technology, such as the internet, mobile phones, and social media, ha[ve] the potential to positively influence democratic outcomes” (p. 271). However, upon research, reflection, and experience, it has come to my realization that in coming to this implication, there are also concerns to look into. Although “it is true that social media is a platform to voice ones’ opinion and thoughts on any subject”, it also presents itself in a restricted way and suppresses information, ultimately “becom[ing] [an] exploitation of freedom of expression rather than exercising it” (Govindarajan & Ravindar, 2016, p. 5). In this essay, I will explore social media’s ability to foster democracy, while also examining censorship and the authoritarian control that exists within the media that contradicts the democratic characteristics of the existence and purpose of these platforms. The question becomes “can social media promote democracy or is it subject to same kinds of censorship as traditional media such as print media and television?” (Jha & Kodila-Tedik, 2019, p. 272).
Social media is a new form of information and communication technologies. As a person who uses social media daily, scrolling, sharing, searching, and consuming, I acknowledge that “the entire world is merely a click away” (Govindarajan & Ravindar, 2016, p. 2). From sharing teaching tips on TikTok to participating in daily tweeting, there are many outlets and opportunities to socialize through the use of the internet and social media. With that said, Jha and Kodila-Tedik (2019) explain multiple ways in which the internet and social media strengthen democracy; they “positively influences the capability of citizens to communicate information with the governments”, they “provide means of multi-way communication, which is harder to control than one-way communication that is allowed by traditional platforms such as newspaper, radios, and televisions”, they “promote transparency and accountability by enabling citizens to report and expose wrongdoings and thereby potentially reduce the frequency of human rights violations because they are more likely to be discovered” and lastly, the internet and social media “can be utilized by civil society to reach a larger audience to mobilize protests against any attempts by the government that may potentially weaken the democratic freedom of the citizens” (p. 273). Nonetheless, those who are privileged enough, are able to consume content as well as make accounts to participate in the distribution of knowledge, media, and opinions. However as much as we think we have control over what we share, our actions are being closely watched and analyzed, running the risk of removal.
Due to the fact that social media has the ability to disseminate information at a fast pace, making it possible for “more and more individuals have access to increasing amounts of information and the opportunity for online socialization” (Swigger, 2013, p. 590), and because “the power of technology, media and politics can reshape reality” (Salgado, 2018, p. 318), media companies and governments take the course of censorship. Some countries participate in information censorship by controlling the content that can be shared or by taking an even further measure and restricting the use of the internet altogether. For example, if the government believes that the diffusion of “x” will cause havoc or have a “foreseen adverse impact”, censorship may occur (Govindarajan & Ravindar, 2016, p. 1). For example, in India individuals are allowed to voice their personal opinions unless posts contain sedition. That said, Section 66A of the IT Act “curbed that freedom of speech to a large extent” (Govindarajan & Ravindar, 2016, p. 4). Nonetheless, Govindarajan and Ravindar (2016) explain that the “justification of this kind of censorship is “that public consumption of such information might result in disrupting the integrity or harmony of the state, or a particular community or individuals as such” (p. 1).
That being said, although the internet can be “used by activists to topple dictators” it can also be used by “the dictators to strengthen their hold on the power” (Jha & Kodila-Tedik, 2019, p. 275). As a result, those in power are able to control what we see and absorb. As Jha and Kodila-Tedik (2019) suggest, “there is evidence that dictators limit the diffusion of information to lengthen their time in office” (p. 278). This is detrimental specifically for young viewers as it has the power to “impact democratic values” and “shape political development” (Swigger, 2013, p. 592). Young users are “exposed to information that confirms their beliefs and they seldom question news that fit their preconceptions” (Salgado, 2018, p. 327). This not only sways people’s opinions, restricting information and knowledge absorption, but it also creates a space with fewer learning opportunities and individuality. In other words, “with social media it is too easy to avoid controversy” (Salgado, 2018, p. 323).
All things considered, social media platforms have the capacity to create democratic spaces for dialogue, however, it is crucial to remember that there are deviations. Despite the fact that social media has the ability to promote democracy far better than print media and television, allowing for two-way communication, it is also contingent to similar measures of censorship and suggested algorithms. Although we can use social media to express ourselves, there are also limitations in what we are able to express, making what we routinely view restricted as well. The idea ultimately becomes questionable when you begin to think about control, censorship, and timelines that coincide with personal views and values. That said, I have come to understand, as Jha and Kodila-Tedik (2019) express, the internet “cannot only be used as a tool for democratization, but also as an instrument for authoritarianism” (p. 272).
Govindarajan, G. & Ravindar, N. (2016). Freedom of Expression on Social Media: Myth or Reality. Global Media Journal – Indian Edition. 7(1). pp. 1-7. Retrieved from: https://www.caluniv.ac.in/global-mdia-journal/SR-2016-NOV/SR1.pdf
Jha, Chandan Kumar, & Kodila-Tedika, Oasis. (2020). Does social media promote democracy? Some empirical evidence. Journal of Policy Modeling, 42(2), 271–290. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpolmod.2019.05.010
Salgado, Susana. (2018). Online media impact on politics. Views on post-truth politics and postpostmodernism. International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics, 14(3), 317–331. https://doi.org/10.1386/macp.14.3.317_1
Nathaniel Swigger. (2013). The Online Citizen: Is Social Media Changing Citizens’ Beliefs About Democratic Values? Political Behavior, 35(3), 589–603. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-012-9208-y