Here at CCGA, we may think that social media is the best thing to happen to politics since the founding of Common Cause, but not everyone agrees with us. While many news articles and research point out the usefulness of social media for increasing citizen engagement and participation and the growth of social media in politics, others frame the subject in a less positive light.
In a recent blog post for The Huffington Post, Dana Radcliffe argues that, “the electronic empowerment of citizens may dangerously weaken democratic governments.” This is because, as Radcliffe proposes, social media permits groups with similar political interests to form and promote their particular agenda, which may lead to “legislatures filled with partisans tightly controlled by narrowly focused constituencies.” To (perhaps over) simplify it, Radcliffe thinks that social media will cause politicians to align themselves with a particular group of their constituents too closely and refuse to compromise with other politicians. A news article in the Toronto Star agreed, noting that Twitter use in the recent Canadian elections was largely partisan and had little effect on voters’ choices.
Their stance is similar to the “filter bubble” argument, a concept created by Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org. A Slate magazine article describes the filter bubble as the way the Internet has led to all of us “getting more of what we like and agree with, and less that challenges our beliefs.” The position proposes that social media gives us only what we want to hear and keeps us insulated from alternative viewpoints.
I’m not going to deny that the filter bubble exists, or that it has an effect on politics. But I do think that things aren’t as bad as they first appear. Not only does each individual have different interests that can expose them to different views on the same topics, but they are also acquainted with people who are more moderate who simply aren’t making their opinions known. What does that mean exactly? I’ll illustrate with my own Twitter account.
On my personal Twitter account, I follow a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons. Some I follow because we share a hobby, some because they’re friends, coworkers, or classmates, some because we share belief systems. Because I follow people for so many different reasons, I’m actually exposed to a lot of other viewpoints. Even if I originally didn’t follow someone for their political views, whenever they talk about politics I hear their opinion. Social media creates a lot less of a bubble of like-minded people than you’d think.
The other thing is that on my personal Twitter account I generally don’t post a lot about politics unless it’s related to a particular issue I care about. When it comes to the big debates—the economy, health care, presidential elections—I tend to stay pretty quiet. But the people I follow don’t. So yes, the voices who are speaking up are strongly biased in favor of one person/party/position or another, but the people they are speaking to may not be. And any influencing that is done (whether someone influences me for or against their position) may motivate me to take action offline, which is hard to track.
Basically, this whole thing is far too complicated to boil down to a blanket condemnation. While I can see where Radcliffe and Pariser are coming from, I’m more inclined to agree with Glen Gilmore, an adjunct professor of Digital & Social Media Marketing & Law at Rutgers University, who claimed that “social media is where the conversation about politics is taking place, and it’s now too big to be ignored” when quoted in the Politico. Maybe social media does keep us in a filter bubble, but if so it’s one with quite a lot of room for other opinions to find their way through the filter. And when it comes to democracy, multiple voices are always better than one.