Can Social Media Spread Democracy?

Social media is changing the way we learn about our world. The Internet-based communication networks are promoting freedom of speech. People are no longer passive readers, but rather engaging in news as a conversation on an international stage. Local and global societies are instantly collaborating, contributing, interpreting and interacting. The World Wide Web allows citizens to take ownership of public policy by reacting to issues that affect them. This literature reviews participation statistics, cultural implications and propaganda concerns as communities decentralize media and strive to democratize information online.

Who is Connected Online?

Public decision-making processes require maximum participation in order to model a direct democracy[1]. The number of people plugged into the Internet doubled during the past five years and will soon surpass two billion, according to the International Telecommunication Union[2] (2010, p. 4). The Internet seemingly summons societies into virtual town hall meetings, where citizens openly question authority, discuss conspiracies and argue over social trends. A global state of the union is asserted everyday online. Anyone connected to the Internet can attempt to understand public opinion, concerning nearly any issue. The World Wide Web may be forming the backbone to a global information-sharing democracy.

Broadcast media[3] addresses public concerns by introducing newsworthy topics, but requires audiences to remain mostly passive. In ancient Rome, Julius Caesar publicized government bulletins in carved metal and stone – definitely no interaction there. Around 1,600 years later, Johannes Gutenberg industrialized media in Europe with the first printing press. By the early 20th century, tabloid journalism had flourished amid an introduction of radio and television programming. Media went through another revolution on the heels of the 21st century with the introduction of a network of computers capable of transmitting data worldwide, known as the Internet. An integrated system of linked hypertext documents began organizing content, which led to the World Wide Web.

Social media[4] uses the Internet’s networked infrastructure to introduce a new layer to journalism, one of partnerships with audiences. Consumers have become participants, as content mediators and distributors. Interactive applications allow audiences to publicly voice their opinions, and then market information that grabs their attention. Newsrooms have rushed to support social media platforms – contributing to profiles, feeds and embedding bookmarking buttons – but they must spend as much time listening as they do posting (Skoler, 2009).

More than a quarter of the world’s population – or 1.9 billion people – had a home computer in 2009, according to ITU (2009, p. 2). Twenty-one percent of developing countries are online, a percentage weighed down by Africa’s struggle to reach 10 percent (International Telecommunication Union, 2010, p. 4). Seventy-one percent of developed nations are online and several have declared Internet access as a legal right for citizens, including Estonia, Finland and Spain (p. 4). Americans are spending nearly a quarter of their online time using social media websites, up 43 percent from a year ago, and their interest in comparatively private e-mails has decreased 28 percent (Nielsen Wire, 2010).

Access to mobile technologies is also mounting. People are connecting to social networks in coffee shops and waiting areas – downtime is becoming download time. Mobile networks are now available to 90 percent of the world’s population, according to ITU reports (2010, p. 1). Worldwide cellular subscriptions are expected to top 5.3 billion by the end of 2010 (p. 1). Cellular growth is reaching saturation levels in developed countries, while the developing areas rapidly catch up (p. 2). More than 140 countries currently offer commercial 3G services, which supply multi-tasking data rates at broadband speeds (p. 1). Facebook is accessed by more than 200 million mobile devices, and the users are twice as active than non-mobile members. (Facebook, 2010b).

Publishers are now able to rapidly respond to their reader’s needs, according to Time reporter Dan Fletcher, who says: “We’re now able to better understand than at any point in media’s history what people want to read and what they’re looking to get from us. We’re able to build more complete profiles of who are readers are at any given moment, down to a very granular level, which is a very powerful thing for news” (Stengel, 2010, p. 58).

Willis and Bowman (2003) provide six fundamental reasons for audience participation online: “to gain status or build reputation in a given community; to create connections with others who have similar interests, online and off; sense-making and understanding; to inform and be inform; to entertain and be entertained; and to create.” The researchers describe collaborative communication that occurs in social media as “participatory journalism”:

The act of a citizen, or group of citizens, playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating news and information. The intent of this participation is to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires. (p. 9)

Are People Collaborating Online About World Issues?

Boyd refers to the combination of global and local communities through technology as “glocalization” (2006). Glocalization is the phenomenon that unfolds when individuals communicate with far-away civilizations. The mixture is associated with an uncomfortable combination of linguistic and cognitive differences, but the conversations make news memorable. Boyd calls for social media developers to create platforms that recognize the significance of culture.

Online social groups are creating their own cultures – cultures that transcend both politics and borders. Merriam-Webster, Inc. defines culture as “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations” (2010). Participatory journalism is affecting human knowledge, belief and behavior through online discussions. Audiences feel empowered to contribute and make a difference, and then take ownership of the result.

Collaborative social efforts on the Internet are passing onto succeeding generations. Many young people don’t even look for news today, but rather rely on their online connections to send trustworthy online sources, such as blogs[5], videos and podcasts[6]. (Skoler, 2009). Many technology stakeholders and critics believe digital natives[7] will continue to disclose much more personal information online to build friendships, form and find communities, seek help and build reputations (Anderson & Rainie, 2010).

The rules of participation online must favor an open exchange of ideas. Censorship will destroy the democratization of information. Egyptian-born columnist Mona Eltahawy writes about Middle Eastern political affairs for international newspapers. She says social media platforms are giving a voice to the most marginalized groups in the region (Hilleary, 2010):

They finally have a place to express themselves, and it’s not just for “stress relief,” because there are many examples I could give you from the region of how social media, for example, have helped convict police officers of torture… of how social media were used to help a hunger strike in Saudi Arabia in support of political dissidents; of how social media – again in Egypt – were used to raise awareness about sexual harassment against women in public, to the extend that the Egyptian Parliament is discussing a draft law that would both define and criminalize sexual harassment; and, in a country like Morocco, social media have been used to expose police corruption.

Yahoo! recently published “Saudi Arabia blocks Facebook over moral concerns.” The Associated Press reported that access to the popular social-networking website had been blocked in Saudi Arabia (Al-Shihri, 2010). An anonymous official from the kingdom’s communication authority said the content had “crossed a line” in respecting their conservative values.

It’s significant to point out: Facebook doesn’t provide content. The website’s more than 500 million active registered users take that role. Roughly 70 percent of them are outside the United States (Facebook, 2010b) and more than 300,000 users have helped translate the website into more than 70 languages. The service, headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif., is trying to “make the world more open and transparent” (Facebook, 2010a). Reg Athwal, chairman and founder of OneTVO in Duabi, U.A.E., says websites like Facebook are “increasingly becoming a highly effective communication tool in the Gulf region and will fundamentally change the way individuals think, private companies act and public bodies deliver services” (Khan, 2010).

Readers quickly reacted to the Facebook ban in Saudi Arabia. The country unblocked the social-networking website two hours after making headlines. During that time, 50 comments flooded the stories footer, some suggesting a familiarization with the country’s strict interpretation of Islamic Law. Unless openly declared by the contributor – for whatever reason – it was impossible to know the origin of each comment. On Yahoo!, the public’s opinion apparently matters more than their location. Many explained moral hypocrisies and a disservice to progressive thinking. Prejudice and intolerance infected arguments.

An anonymous reader received 15 “thumbs up” ratings from others after suggesting “tightly controlled regimes” have “a serious problem with the Internet. It allows the people to see how the rest of the world lives and destroys the pack of lies created by a few bureaucrats protecting regimes. I truly believe that, from a long-term perspective, many of these regimes will have problems as the masses see the way the rest of the world lives” (Al-Shihri, 2010, comment 20). The story quickly collected 200 other comments on Yahoo! and the page was shared on more than 900 Facebook profiles and 60 Twitter feeds. Google found 300 similar articles, each with their own set of social media statistics.

“Soliciting engagement from your consumers is a cost of entry,” says Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBC Universal Women and Lifestyle Entertainment Networks. “We thought about the recession long before it was a news story, because the women of our iVillage community were speaking to each other, saying ‘My husband just got laid off.’ People have now been given a right to speak, and you can’t muzzle them” (Stengel, 2010, p. 57).

How Will Propagandists Permeate Online Information?

Information is becoming decentralized, but propaganda remains. A review of use suggests that social media hosts agenda-setting campaigns. Propagandists are online and playing on language to affect pubic opinion. Most of their manipulative tactics fall within the Institute of Propaganda Analysis’ seven basic techniques: “name calling; glittering generalities; transfer; testimonial; plain folks; card stacking; and bandwagon” (1939).

Name Calling: promoting fear and anxiety in the group, so they condemn an idea by generating conclusions without credible evidence. The propagandist attracts negativity by attacking without a valid basis of reasoning. People frequently abuse online communities by spreading rumors and performing pranks. They create to entertain at the expense of others by introducing jargon or jokes. Conflict encourages participation, but it must move in a positive direction to preserve a group’s integrity. Name-calling propagandists act like terrorists by using terror to coerce public opinion. They hope their audience will not ask for facts or seek out evidence to support their claims (Fleming, 1995).

Anyone engaging in participatory journalism should understand that neurotic personalities are attracted to online discussions. Correa, Hinsley and De Zuniga reason that much of this attraction stems from the additional time permitted to contemplate their responses, as compared to face-to-face interactions (2010). Since neuroticism is linked to loneliness, it’s likely that anxious and nervous people use social-networking websites to seek support and company. Audiences must watch their reactions and consider their immediate opinions. We must tread carefully after an emotional chord is struck.

Glittering generalities: vague, abstract, positive statements that appeal to the values and beliefs held by the audience, yet provide no real reasoning. People who participate for entertainment purposes may embellish on otherwise ordinary ideas. The propagandist may rally excitement for a particular hometown, in order to attract sales at a local retailer. They hope people will respond favorably to a label, without thinking about what it represents (Fleming, 1995). Audiences must watch out for terms that are difficult to define. Sharp definitions will safeguard them from over reactions.

Transfer: carrying over an authority and approval of someone or something to promote acceptance. People want to feed their obsessions and share them with others online. They use social media to group by common interests, and then work collectively to create a contagious respect for their passions, beliefs, hobbies and lifestyles (Willis & Bowman, 2003, p. 39). Similarly, integrating images of celebrities into a website’s design transfers the person’s prestige, characteristics and familiarity onto the group. Hyperlinks on blogs distribute credibility to external websites. The propagandist wants people to react automatically to the connection (Fleming, 1995). Audiences must doubt their opinions when readily responding positively.

Testimonial: associating a respected person – or someone with experience – to endorse a product or cause. Everyone on the Internet is capable of becoming an expert in some subject. Reputation systems and trust metrics are used in online discussions and e-commerce to recognize knowledge in a community. Participants may also build respect through contributions, and then use their status to persuade the acceptance of ideas. The propagandist wants people to respond to the testimonial, without realizing that the experiences surrounding it aren’t the same as those of the audience (Fleming, 1995). It’s important to recognize the sponsored hype, since it easily affects spending, income, health, education, business, religious convictions, as well as community and corporate responsibilities.

Plain folks: convincing an audience that the spokesperson is someone they can trust, someone with their interests at heart. The propagandist suggests that ideas are from the people – untainted by corporate or government interest. Since social media is often an anonymous networking system, anyone can blend into a community. Stefanone, Lackaff, and Rosen found that many online friends have never met face-to-face, and the percentage is significantly related to increased television viewing (2010). Propagandists may act like a politician by striving to resemble their audience. They highlight similarities while hoping people will react automatically, without looking for actual differences (Fleming, 1995).

Eliminating anonymity may solve some issues associated with plain-folks propagandists. Facebook presses users to share more and more, which has led to a rash of confidentiality concerns. The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a 38-page complaint at the Federal Trade Commission in May, reporting Facebook for confusing privacy controls and frequent policy changes (Fletcher, 2010). In South Korea, the most popular social media websites require real names and national identity numbers for registration (Herman, 2010).

However, even familiar people may pervert the trust of their friends and family to spread their ideologies online. Correa, Hinsley and De Zuniga point out that offline extroverted personalities, rather than introverted, frequently participate in social-networking sites that don’t allow anonymity (2010). Regardless, it’s important to evaluate our own propaganda. We must consider the environmental conditions that have influenced our perceptions. For example, anyone raised in a family of conservatives is likely to hastily disregard liberal views.

Card stacking: producing the best case possible for one side using ambiguous truths and partial information, while strategically discrediting opposing viewpoints. The propagandist may ignore negative information, while making positive aspects public. This calculating tactic is seen on stock market message boards, where a battle between long- and short-term investors attempts to persuade the purchasing or selling of securities. North Korean propaganda recently emerged on popular social-networking websites, in order to impart compassion for the communist state, especially in South Korea (Herman, 2010). Ironically, most North Koreans cannot contribute themselves, since few are allowed Internet access. Propagandists present an incomplete argument and expect the audience to respond to the facts given without question (Fleming, 1995). Find all available facts before coming to a conclusion. Avoid a rush to accept information at face value. Slow down and apply a critical-thinking attitude.

Bandwagon: persuading audiences to follow the crowd, such as suggesting everyone else already accepted an idea. The spiral of silence theory assumes people are less likely to voice an opinion on a topic if they feel they’re in the minority for fear of reprisal or isolation from the majority (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). People are constantly observing the behaviors of others in order to understand ideologies that gain approval and disapproval. They are more willing to publicly post comments they believe will be accepted positively and build social cohesion. The propagandist hopes people will respond to similarities and ignore differences. They may even resurrect previously held beliefs, suggesting they’re still supported (Fleming, 1995). While the majority rules in encouraging communal stability, the minority is necessary to push social change – increasing acceptance of contradictions overcomes a group’s silence. Never shy away from challenging the status quo online.

Can Social Media Spread Democracy?

Pulling people together with common perspectives, though online groups, could be too much of a good thing, according to Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight.com founder: “How much democracy do we really want? We think we want more and more of it, but maybe people are too impatient sometimes when they get together in groups. Maybe they’re too eager to listen to people like themselves and not to people unlike them who have different opinions. And those things, I think, are dangerous, potentially” (Stengel, 2010).

Participatory journalism must introduce ideas that promote open-minded, educated discussions, while addressing known concerns and arguments. Journalists must nourish social media websites with investigative reports while measuring consumer reactions and current needs. The public needs facts to discern truth in an information-drenched world. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis states:

It is essential in a democratic society that young people and adults learn how to think, learn how to make up their minds. They must learn how to think independently, and they must learn how to think together. They must come to conclusions, but at the same time, they must recognize the right of other men to come to opposite conclusions. So far as individuals are concerned, the art of democracy is the art of thinking and discussing independently together. (1939)

Web applications form the strength of the walls and corridors surrounding the worldwide democratization of information using social media. Billions of people are signed up for a cyberspace senate, where people are discussing the world’s most controversial issues. We are enriched by the voices of the many, and no longer reliant on the elite.


[1] A direct democracy, or pure democracy, is a form of governance that places power on the people rather than elected representatives.
[2] International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the leading United Nations agency for information and communication technology issues. ITU is based in Geneva, Switzerland.
[3] Broadcast media refers to information distribution systems that require the audience to remain mostly passive, such as television and radio programs and print publications.
[4] Social media refers to information distribution systems that require the audience to participate, such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, video sharing and social bookmarking.
[5] Web logs, or blogs, are chronological journals used by professional and amateur journalists who reflect on events, discuss various topics and share opinions.
[6] Podcasts are a series of digital media files (audio or video), which are often downloaded through web syndication.
[7] Digital natives are individuals raised with digital technologies.

Works Cited

Al-Shihri, A. (2010, November 13). Saudi Arabia blocks Facebook over moral concerns. (A. Press, Editor) Retrieved November 20, 2010, from Yahoo!: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101113/ap_on_hi_te/ml_saudi_facebook_ban

Anderson, J., & Rainie, L. (2010, July 9). Millennials will make online sharing in networks a lifelong habit. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from Pew Internet & American Life Project: http://www.perinternet.org/Reports/2010/Future-of-Millennials.aspx

Boyd, D. (2006). G/Localization: When global and local interaction collide. O’Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference. San Diego.

Correa, T., Hinsley, A. W., & De Zuniga, H. G. (2010). Who interacts on the web?: The intersection of users’ personality and social media use. Computers in Human Behavior, 26, 247-253.

Facebook. (2010a). Principles. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/principles.php

Facebook. (2010b). Statistics. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/info.php?statistics

Fleming, C. A. (1995). Understanding propaganda from a general semantics perspective. A Review of General Semantics, 52 (1), pp. 3-12.

Fletcher, D. (2010, May 31). Friends without borders. Time, 175 (21), pp. 32-38.

Herman, S. (2010, October 19). N. Korean propaganda appears on popular Internet social media sites. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from VOA News: http://www.voanews.com/english/news/N-Korean-Propaganda-Appears-on-Popular-Internet-Social-Media-Sites

Hilleary, C. (2010, August 17). Can social media bring democracy to Middle East. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from VOA News: http://www.voanews.com/english/news/middle-east/Will-New-Media-Bring-Democracy-to-Middle-East-100898544.html

International Telecommunications Union. (2010). The World in 2010. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from ITU Information and Communication Technology: http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/material/FactsFigures2010.pdf

International Telecommunications Union. (2009). The World in 2009: ICT Facts and Figures. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from ITU Information and Communication Technology: http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/material/Telecom09_flyer.pdf

Khan, G. A. (2010, May 15). Social media offer greater connectivity. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from Arab News: http://arabnews.com/saudiarabia/article54135.ece

Merriam-Webster, Inc. (2010). Culture. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from Merriam-Webster: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/culture

Nielsen Wire. (2010, August 2). What Americans do online: social media and games dominate activity. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from: http://www.blog.nielsen.com/nielsonwire/online_mobile/what-americans-do-online-social-media-and-games-dominate-activity/

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974). The spiral of silence: a theory of public opinion. Journal of Communication, 24, 43-51.

Skoler, M. (2009). Why the news media became irrelevant — and how social media can help. Nieman Reports, 63 (3), 38-40.

Stefanone, M., Lackaff, D., & Rosen, D. (2010). The relationship between traditional mass media and “social media”: reality television as a model for social network site behavior. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 54 (3), 508-525.

Stengel, R. (2010, October 4). Social media roundtable. Time, 176 (14), pp. 57-58.

The Institute for Propaganda Analysis. (1939). The fine art of propaganda; A study of father Coughlin’s speeches. (A. M. Lee, & E. B. Lee, Eds.) New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Share a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s