How are social media changing democracy?

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Donald Trump may be unfit to be America’s president, but he clearly is a master of social media. His often outrageous tweets have earned the real-estate magnate-turned-politician more than 7m followers on Twitter. And most messages are seen by millions more because…

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Donald Trump may be unfit to be America’s president, but he clearly is a master of social media. His often outrageous tweets have earned the real-estate magnate-turned-politician more than 7m followers on Twitter. And most messages are seen by millions more because they are forwarded thousands of times and get extensive coverage in mainstream media. Mr Trump’s campaign is thus proof of how important social media have become to politics and all kinds of collective action. How is this changing democracy?

Political scientists have long pointed out that social media make it easier for interests to organise: they give voice and power to people who have neither. For instance, they helped get Black Lives Matter, a movement fighting violence against African-Americans, off the ground, according to a recent study led by Deen Freelon of the American University in Washington, DC. But research into another effect has only just begun: social media are also making politics and collective action more “chaotic”, argues a new book called “Political Turbulence”.

Mobilisation often explodes, seemingly at random, according to the authors, most of whom work at the Oxford Internet Institute. Most online petitions, for instance, attract only a small number of supporters. Success does not depend on the subject matter—similar ones often fare quite differently—but the personality of potential participants. Extroverts, for instance, are more likely to act because they are sensitive to “social information”: seeing that others have already signed and knowing that their endorsement will be seen too. As a result, if a petition’s initial audience includes enough people with the right mindset, it can quickly take off (as do political Twitter hashtags, see chart). Politics in the age of social media are thus better understood by chaos theory than by conventional social science. Collective action online is a bit like the weather: small events can have a big impact. The book’s intriguing conclusion: social media are making democracies more “pluralistic”, but not in the conventional sense of the word, involving diverse but stable groups. Instead, the authors see the emergence of a “chaotic pluralism”, in which mobilisations spring from the bottom up.

One day, say the authors, it will be possible to predict, and perhaps even trigger such social-media surges, in the same way that meteorologists have become good at forecasting the weather. The big question is: who will be the political weathermen? Only two groups of actors are sure to have good access to social-media data and enough resources to develop software to sift through them: one is online giants, such as Facebook and Google, the other governments. So social media, like other forms of technology, will cut both ways in politics: they are making societies more democratic, but will also provide those in power with new tools of control.

Read The Economist’s special report on data and politics here

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