Why activists should be aware that social media are not the public sphere

5 minutes to read
Column
Lucas Pascholatti
02/06/2017

For the past few decades, activists have been relying on social media as tools to mediate their ideas on the public sphere. However, that should not be the ideal case anymore and progressive movements should take note of that. The context of a post-truth democracy and the oligopoly of social media in the hands a few corporations impose new obstacles for activists and to democracy itself. Moreover, the discussion on whether the online sphere and the public sphere have become one and the same is more than an urgent matter to be discussed.

The context of a post-truth democracy and the oligopoly of social media in the hands a few corporations imposes new obstacles for activists and democracy itself

It is a fact that journalists from independent media and activists rely on social media as tools that can potentially cause social changes. For many users, the representation of solidarity for terrorist attacks, tragedies in general (such as the election of Trump in USA) or for the LGBT cause is widespread. After all, everybody remembers #PrayforParis or the rainbow profile pictures. Should demonstrations on social media, such as Facebook posts whenever someone is politically anoyed and emotionaly touched by their reality, be a consensus for social emancipation? The answer is: it should not. The generation of activists who relied on social media, such as Twitter or Facebook, to help spread facts and generate new viral mobilization is certainly endangered.   

Thomas Piketty (2013) argued in “Capital in the Twenty First Century” that capital is becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of just a few. This is no news at all for leftists of the past centuries. What is new however, is that there is economic proof for it now. A report from the Economic Forum of Davos, Switzerland, showed that the world’s 8 richest people have the same wealth as the 50% poorest. Among them are Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. It doesn't matter how much they show themselves as good white men that can get by on a single dollar a year, or how many philanthropic foundations they create, they are still an example of the concentration of money. For those who believe in a fair and equalitarian society, this is far from the ideal.

The generation of activists that relied on social media, such as Twitter or Facebook to help spread facts and generate new viral mobilization is certainly endangered

Facebook, Google and computer companies are the establishment themselves. Activists who rely on Facebook posts as a way to impact the public sphere and cause big social changes are doing it wrong. Internet communication companies are not accountable and social media are not equal to philanthropy. Neither are social media a creation from left wing hack-activists who support more freedom of expression or the flow of transparency for public information.

Recently, many journalists and intellectuals have been discussing what has turned out to be the post-truth democracy. Unsurprisingly, social media play an important part. The phenomenon of fake news, which profits from advertisements and focusses on generating impact on the actual public sphere, has caused many negative consequences, such as the coup d’état in Brazil, Brexit and the election of Trump. The caricatural way in which modern society is represented by trolls in the 20th season of the animated sitcom South Park is not far from our reality. In the show, the characters can harass people until they commit suicide and they have the power to interfere with democratic elections. The resemblances are striking, just as much as the dystopian portrait of human reality which is painted by the television series Black Mirror can be seen as a shockingly clear lens through which to look at society.

Facebook, Google and computer companies are the establishment

Of course, having new technologies that allow new dialogical ways of communicating in real time is essential. The fact that people can comment, share, create and follow certain media is an important innovation of today’s global communication. Not all comments come from trolls and not all online discussions end with flaming. However, the reality is that people’s access to information is manipulated by algorithms, such as search mechanisms. Another example are the famous echo-chambers of your news feed on social media; the people you see and interact with are also selected by algorithms. Users' behaviour and the information they get access to is controlled by governments and international, non-accountable and powerful lobbyist corporations, and that is an important reality that imposes many obstacles for activists. Yes, social media are censored.
 

South Park’s Twentieth Season (2016) and the comic representation trolls as social villains, responsible for all current problems we are dealing with.

 

Looking back at the time when I was studying for my bachelor's degree, the best public discussions I had certainly didn't take place on Facebook, but during student meetings, where democracy was put into practice and we would position ourselves by the best general consensus. People should remember that the true democratic debate is and will always be face-to-face. Internet, as much as television, radio or newspapers, is a tool, a means of communication and not much more than that.

The fact that people can comment, share, create and follow certain media is an important innovation of today’s global communication.

As a result, activists should first and foremost concentrate on promoting democracy and the public debate of the old ways, staying far away from social media. Moreover, technology as a tool for emancipation should also be discussed. Currently, social media represent the old capitalist system and therefore they should be looked at critically. Your Facebook, Instagram and Gmail accounts are part of the system as much as the traditional media are, and you should always bear that in mind. As possible alternatives for communicative capitalism, we have numerous examples of open source platforms, such as the Wikimedia Foundation, and the WWW Foundation. Society will only profit from a more accountable, democratic and open internet. 

Companies and advertisements are important for the internet and play a part in our society; this also applies to social media such as Youtube, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. They are  important interpersonal communication tools. After all everyone wants to keep in touch with old friends and post and watch pictures from all over the world, including cats and good food. Even for commercial and entreperneurial ambitions, social media networks and internet are important tools. They can also be used to expose racism or cases of social injustice in general, without getting the traditional media involved, as showed by Bonilla & Rosa (2015) in the case of #Ferguson and Twitter in the US. However, it is more important to deal with social media in a critical manner, despite all of the benefits they may provide us with. We need to be ware of what they are, not only as citizens, but as activists, and recognise them for what they truly are and for what they truly represent.

References

Jodi Dean (2003). Why the Net is not a Public Sphere. Constellations, 10, 95-112. doi: 10.1111/1467-8675.00315

Tereza Spilioti (2016). Digital discourses. A critical perspective. The routledge Handbook of Language and Digital Communication. London: Routledge.

Timothy Garton Ash (2016). Free Speech, Ten Principles for a connected World. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Vincent Miller (2016). The Crisis of Presence in Contemporary Culture. Ethics, Privacy and Speech in Mediated Social Life. London: Sage.

Yarimar Bonilla & Jonathan Rosa (2015). #Ferguson. Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States.

Zizi Papacharissi (2002). The Virtual Sphere, The Internet as a Public Sphere. New Media & Society, 4, 9-27.