There is plenty of criticism about the role that Social Media plays in democracy. There have been plenty of high profile cases such as the Cambridge Analytica where people’s personal data from Facebook had been used without people’s consent. This data was then used by those campaigning for Brexit.
After the horrific terror attacks in New Zealand earlier this year there was considerable criticism about the role social media had played. There have been plenty of other examples of the far right using social media to promote messages of hate and bigotry.
But social media can also be a force for good. I have used Facebook live to film a Wellington Regional Council meeting where they were discussing the future of the regions bus service. The media had failed to show up to this event, and it was this tool which meant drivers and concerned members of the public could be kept informed.
Social media played a significant role in the 2017 UK election. The so-called youth quake where under 30s turned out to vote in much higher numbers than usual, is largely attributed social media campaigns run by Momentum and other campaign groups.
Since living in the UK I have seen how social media plays a vital role. In early 2018 there were large protests in London demanding increases for to NHS funding. The BBC didn’t bother to report on these protests at all. After days of considerable social media footage and posts, US president Donald Trump mentioned the protests in a tweet (where he inaccurately claimed people were protesting against the NHS, when in fact they were demanding more funding). Only after Trumps Tweet did the UKs national broadcaster bother to report that these protests had occurred.
In my previous post I alluded to some of the common complaints and concerns about traditional media. The beauty about social media is that anybody can publish anything. It’s very hard to suppress a story or completely shut down a debate as did often happen in the pre internet age. Conversely though, it does mean anyone can post anything. And it means people can pretend to be someone they are not, or present something in a deliberately misleading way.
During the ITV leaders debate on Tuesday, The UK Conservative Party changed their twitter handle to factcheckUK. This allowed the Conservatives to rebut statements made by Labour, not as the Conservatives but by pretending to be an independent fact checker site. Twitter has condemned this action and warned the Conservatives they will take action if it happens again.
Two days later the Conservatives were at it again. They released a fake Labour manifesto page on the same morning that the Labour Party were releasing their manifesto in Birmingham. There has been widespread criticism that the Conservative Party are using digital media to run a misinformation campaign.
A major discussion is happening globally about how much freedom of speech there should be on social media. There are growing calls for social media platforms to monitor their content, and calls for platforms to remove misleading or offensive content. There is concern that during elections it is too easy to spread misinformation which could then affect the election outcome.
As someone who has used social media platforms to run campaigns or to engage in political discussion and debates, I can see both sides. Misinformation is never a good thing. Social media has at times meant certain voices or perspectives get a hearing that struggled to do so with traditional media. But that in turn also means certain voices many of us are uncomfortable hearing from, such as the far right, also get a voice.
We should be wary of calls for greater regulation, censorship or general control over what can and can’t be published online. Who do we want policing this? Social media companies like Facebook or Twitter? They are private businesses with their own motives. The government? We can see above a government using online media to spread misinformation – do we really want them being the censors?
Social media offers enormous opportunities to improve our democratic societies, and engage people in debate and discussion in ways that haven’t been possible in the past. But like traditional media, it is far from perfect. In the UK we’ve seen it used to engage young voters and to get news stories out that otherwise wouldn’t have been given airtime. But we also see political organisations using social media deceptively.
Social media platforms are still relatively young, and are still developing as democratic tools. As citizens we should decide what we want our social media to look like. Also to call out and expose those who try to use it for ill or deception.