Does greater democracy lead to more open media, or, does more open media lead to greater democracy?

Originally written for The Fletcher School’s International Communication course, September 2019.

Since their inception, communication and new media technologies have been used to encourage and expand freedom of speech online, and as an extension, democracy. While the examples in our readings are anecdotal, they demonstrate a common thread: instances where digital technologies and networks have helped those working to topple authoritarian regimes — by rallying masses with shared grievances or conducting citizen journalism to reveal the truth from the ground — outweigh those where the platforms have failed.

While more open and social networks alone do not cause nor act as a substitute for revolutionary movements or offer a panacea to effective political opposition leadership appointments, they can help mold a collective of dissidents from all walks of life, ease organizing, and call on the world to watch. Though totalitarian forces try to manipulate communications to their advantage, they often reel from the economic blowback of trying to block the critical structures of today’s information age. The international scope of networked protest also enables the wide broadcasting of related events, from which can spring outrage and pressure from fellow governing bodies to make concessions or step down — especially in response to disproportionate state violence.

As Tufecki states, computer networks present a “reconfigured logic of how and where we can interact, with whom, and at what scale and visibility.” From the right to petition one’s government, to freedom of the press and of assembly, they put forth a new paradigm for building democracy: the virtual public square. Accessible by anyone with a WiFi connection, modern communication favors sovereign individuals over sovereign governments by transferring information away from elites and empowering everyone on the network to both originate and receive messages, affording free association that brings both autonomy and influence. As such, they’re especially important during the initial formation of social movements. For many Egyptians, joining Facebook was initially to connect with friends and family, but exposure to ideas and information by political activists was a side effect, which played a crucial role in growing protester numbers during the Arab Spring.

As we’ve seen, social movements increasingly depend on a small number of corporate platforms and search engines relying on an ad-based revenue model that can supersede privacy and user data protections. As such, the algorithms at work can control content by prioritizing what to surface on the News Feed, which can mean the difference between widespread visibility for activists or burial of their posts and events.

As companies like Facebook and Google continue to strengthen their hold on the online world, they can take it upon themselves to block content, change naming policies, and silence — whether intentionally or not — the most marginalized voices and movements in our society. That is why we must be weary of this unprecedented public sphere and ready to hold its key actors accountable.

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