Democracy in the era of social media: why the deus ex machina will not
work this time
Julia Rone, Wiener-Anspach postdoctoral researcher at Université libre de Bruxelles
and the University of Cambridge
Social media matter less than we think. They are neither ―a necessary and sometimes even
sufficient cause of democratization‖
nor an evil force that ―is rotting democracy from
. Rather, their ascent is the manifestation of much broader trends and problems in
The rise of the ―social‖ as in social media has taken place in the context of the decline of the
―public‖ as in public education, public media, and public good. That is not to say that
Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have caused the decline of the public. The causes are
multiple – institutional, ideological, economic. Still, the excessive focus on social media has
certainly distracted us from the questions that really matter. There are a lot of interesting
things to say about the relationship between democracy and social media. The problem is that
this is not the right question to discuss. The even bigger problem is that this is precisely the
question we have been discussing for years now.
The Obama-Trump Pendulum
In 2008, Barack Obama was elected the president of the U.S. We (journalists and media
scholars) called this ―the Facebook elections‖
and wondered rather rhetorically whether
―Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are ―democratizing our political systems?‖
. Then in 2011,
millions of Egyptians occupied Tahrir square in Cairo. We hailed it as the ―Facebook
. Joining the global wave of protest, millions of Spanish, Italian and Greek
citizens took central city squares of their countries and protested against austerity. We
described what happened as ―Networks of Outrage and Hope‖
. In 2016, Donald Trump got
elected as the president of the U.S. and the British public voted for Brexit. We started
discussing trolls, bots, nefarious disinformation, and called for more regulation of social
. Thus, in the last decade, the attitude to social media swayed from full
utopia to full dystopia. I call this shift in how social media have been represented the
The quick shift from extreme love to extreme fear in relation to social media is indeed
fascinating. What is even more fascinating is that whatever dramatic political event happened
in the last decade, there was always a group of scholars and journalists that tried to explain it
away with some aspect of social media. This type of approach is a prime example of techno-
fetishism – ascribing to technology the agency that normally should belong to people
Techno-fetishism and social media as deus ex machina
Stories about social media sell. Whether we hail social media as saviours or unmask them as
culprits, people are always interested because there are conspiracies, plot twists, the
gratifying feeling of ―it was always in front of our eyes but we didn‘t notice‖. Social media
are the deus ex machina that allows us to find an easy solution to complicated political plots.
In English crime novels, it is always the butler who did it. In popular political analyses, it is
always social media. Revolutions, Brexit, elections – if we trust experts, they all seem to have
been decided by the mighty algorithms.
But maybe we should ―leave the butler alone‖, leave social media and focus on the bigger
questions. The previously happy marriage of democracy and capitalism in the West is in
danger. This danger will not go away simply if we regulate social media or break up their
monopolies, as much as The Guardian wants us to believe this
. And alternatives have not
been particularly successful either
. Even if we set up independent servers operating on free
software with fully encrypted data and communicate on decentralised social networks after
months of careful ―digital detox‖, we would still live in an increasingly unequal capitalist
society. The left should acknowledge this and stop falling for radical criticism in a niche topic
So what is to be done? This essay will look at how social media fit within three
interconnected trends that have long lasting impact on Western democracies: the increasing
concentration of power and wealth in the hands of few players globally, the decrease of trust
in politicians, institutions and media, and the rise of antisystemic movements demanding
more democracy. These trends are connected in multiple ways. Neoliberalism as a project of
the ruling class has consistently fought to deregulate capital in key areas and to depoliticise
key economic issues though a variety of legal and institutional means
politicians as self-serving agents has been a key aspect of the push for technocratic solutions
outside the purview of democratic control. What is more, left-wing artistic critique of
institutions was often co-opted and used to legitimize increasing precarity and loss of social
and labour rights
. The deregulation of capital and media in turn have given even more
economic, political, and discursive power to the rich. But the more capital has become
unaccountable and politics - de-democratized, the more antisystemic social movements from
below have started to push back and insist for ―real democracy now‖.
Social media appeared in this context and skilfully presented themselves as the technological
alternative to both corrupt politicians and untrustworthy media. What is more, for a while it
seemed that they offer a key platform for progressive social movements. The great
expectations however turned out to be quite different from the reality. The paragraphs that
follow are not a story of lost innocence, since social media had been private capitalist
enterprises from day one. What we tell is rather a story of lost illusions. The deus ex machina
simply did not work.
Democracy in the era of declining trust
Probably the single most famous Twitter user nowadays is U.S. President Donald Trump. But
back in the mid-2000s social media were still no country for old men. The informality of
social media, the amateur aesthetics and the, at least nominal, possibility for everyone to
publish created a sense of a participatory bottom-up revolution taking place. Silicon Valley
gurus kept talking about user-generated content, sharing, and citizen empowerment. They co-
opted socialist ideas and tropes to hype private companies whose models were ultimately
based on data extraction
. In a Wired cover Kevin Kelly even claimed that digital socialism
―can be viewed as a third way that renders irrelevant the old debates‖
. Like previous
experiments with ―the third way‖, the digital third way turned out to be as far from socialism
But why did this utopia sound so convincing back then? An important reason is the
considerable loss of trust in media and politics done the traditional way. Both media critics
and the general population had been disillusioned with mainstream corporate media. This was
a period of concentration of media ownership, tabloidization and infotainment. In
comparison, social media seemed like a breath of fresh air. Citizens, supposedly, could
bypass the old gatekeepers and make their voices heard.
Social media were also believed to revive political participation in a situation of pervasive
disenchantment with politics. Catastrophic statements about loss of trust in politicians and
institutions in the West have been present since at least the 1970s (and have been challenged
ever since). Nevertheless, after the 2008 economic crisis, trust levels did plummet in an
indisputable way, both in the US and in many European countries
. Considering the massive
bail-outs of banks deemed too big to fail, high youth unemployment in Southern Europe,
increasing inequality within countries and tax avoidance by the rich, this should not come as
Apart from these objective factors, political analysis also played a crucial role in the growing
disenchantment with politics. Public choice theory, for example, had long presented
politicians as egoistical profit-seeking maximizers
and provided an intellectual justification
for the neoliberal push for technocracy. In fact, while technocracy and populism have been
often opposed to each other, they both emerged as a response to the delegitimation of
classical party democracy
. They both claimed to serve the interests of ―the people‖ without
the intermediation of corrupt political elites.
Technocrats invoked their expertise and claimed that they simply knew what is good for
everyone. Newly emerging populists, on the contrary, often embraced ―web ideologies‖
the promise of social media, and the Internet more generally. The Pirate Party, Podemos or
the Five Star Movement all believed in the power of technology to serve as the new
intermediary of the popular will
. In this way, the promise of social media came to fill in the
vacuum left by declining trust in politicians and institutions. Online, people could participate
directly without the need for representation.
Thus, Podemos launched a discussion on its party structure on the Agora section of Reddit.
The Five Star movement built the dedicated platform Rousseau. Technological platforms
replaced old party platforms in the sense of programmes but this ultimately empowered
mainly the party leaders
. Similarly, corporate-owned platforms ended up giving more
power to the companies that owned them. The dis-intermediators became the new
Trust in democracy and democratic principles did not decline as much as trust in politicians
and institutions, at least not in Europe
. Social media played on this desire for more
democracy and more participation. They made rhetorical bows to ―you‖, the everyday users,
who created communities online. And meanwhile they built their private empires
Still, social media are not to blame for the collapse of trust in politicians and media. They did
not cause media deregulation in the 1990s, the concentration of media ownership and the
tabloidization of content. Nor аre they to blame for the economic crisis, rising inequality and
casino capitalism. Social media offered a tech solution to complex political problems and we,
the people formerly known as the audience, embraced it and made them rich in the process. It
didn‘t work. Too bad for us.
But could it be that social media not only did not enhance democratic participation but
actually made things worse? Is social media inherently privileging extreme views and
conservative social movements?
Democracy in the era of antisystemic movements
The 2008 economic crisis and the political responses to it disrupted everyday lives in multiple
ways – numerous people saw their life prospects collapsing, lost their mortgages, could not
find a job, entered in debt. In response, there was a sudden rise of antisystemic movements –
―political groupings that oppose and resist the prevailing productive forces and relations in a
given historical era‖
. Protests diffused from the MENA countries to the Mediterranean to
the U.S. with people demanding real democracy now and denouncing rising inequality. The
Occupy Wall Street Slogan ―We are the 99 percent‖ became the slogan of an era
Social media, not least thanks to their own marketing, were considered crucial for these
protests. The Arab Spring was quickly framed as ―Facebook revolution‖ by Western media
and protesters themselves carried slogans with the name ―Facebook‖. What is more, Al
Jazeera also actively framed social media‘s role in the Arab Spring in order to promote a
vision of pan-Arabic solidarity flourishing online
. Inspired by the global wave of protest,
social movement and communication researchers focused on the way social media helped
solve the collective action problem
, helped forge collective identities
Of course, the utopia had some cracks. It was not all rosy and unproblematic and an
increasing number of authors started adopting a more critical perspective to social media.
Some drew attention to the way they privatised the very terrain of the social
and the very
possibility of being together
. Another contested topic was Facebook‘s real name policy and
its implications for the safety of activists
. A number of researchers also focused on the role
of algorithms in structuring activists‘ and everyday users‘ behaviour – from news
consumption practices to friendships
. Instead of helping create a horizontal paradise of
structurelessness and equality, social media often reinforced informal hierarchies
. Finally, a
number of researchers insisted that despite great expectations about social media, protest in
most cases remains place-based and depends on pre-existing and face-to-face networks
Some authors insisted that instead of focusing on social media in isolation, it is much more
fruitful to explore how activists navigate a variety of media in complex media ecologies
Indeed, activists often shift from Facebook groups and pages to Twitter accounts to
mainstream media appearances, and then back to online platforms, mailing lists and private
chats. What is more, the way activists imagine social media, and digital technologies more
generally, has strong effect on the way they use them
All these nuanced understandings of the complex ways in which social media matter were
drowned in the 2016 wave of anti-utopias about social media. The Brexit referendum and the
election of Donald Trump were attributed by liberal media to the proliferation of fake news in
the echo chambers of increasingly radicalised activists online. Suddenly everyone started
paying attention to fake profiles online, bots, propaganda, and alt-right mobilization. The
―Obama-Trump pendulum‖ swung and now far right activism became the focus of
discussion. And while innovative research demonstrated that the fear of echo chambers and
the effects of fake news might be exaggerated
, the problem of political polarization
continues to loom large.
In this context, a new book appeared suggesting that online activism might intrinsically
favour conservatives. Commenting on Jen Shradie‘s book ―The Revolution That Wasn‘t‖,
Richard John observes: ―the consensus view of the internet as a progressive, democratizing
force overlooked a simple reality: building and sustaining an audience online costs money,
and conservatives have more of it. […] Inequality, institutions, and ideas all matter; and, in
the digital arena, each favors the right‖
It was believed that social media could allow progressive activists to mobilize and reach
people more easily. Indeed, examples such as the Occupy Wall Street Movement in the US
and the Labour Momentum movement in the UK showed this is possible
. Yet structural
inequalities and unequal access to resources have also greatly affected social media use and it
might well be the case that they privilege actors with more resources. Mainstream media also
continue to matter greatly. Instead of being the terrain on which to fight privilege, social
media have become just one more terrain of privilege themselves.
Democracy in the era of inequality
While in the late 2000s, people still spoke of ―social media‖ in the plural, throughout the
2010s, Facebook consolidated its influence and became almost the only game in town.
Currently, four of the six biggest social media companies measured by active users – namely
Facebook, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, and Instagram belong to Facebook. The second
biggest social media – YouTube – belongs to Google.
Emerging as small start-ups in the early late 1990s/2000s, Facebook and Google (with its
parent company Alphabet Inc.) have been two of the Big Four tech companies that have
dominated cyberspace throughout the 2010s. The other two tech giants are Amazon and
Apple, with occasionally Microsoft added to the list. The ―gang of four‖ have achieved
unprecedented influence and success and have been among the world top seven best
and top seven most valuable brands
Tech companies have become powerful monopolies that stifle competition and innovation.
But why did they become so big? First, we must mention network effects - the more users
join a particular network, the more incentives new users have to join it. Indeed, the only big
alternatives to Facebook have thrived in countries with big enough markets such as China,
Russia and Brazil.
Second, Facebook‘s dominance has been also the result of a well-planned cultivation of new
markets. In many emerging and developing countries, Facebook has offered free Internet
through subsidized plans like Free Basics, ―which works with local carriers to provide free
"basic" services (like Facebook) to all mobile device users‖
. Facebook has been expanding
its market not only geographically. The company has also expanded its market by turning
into data more and more aspects of our daily life in a broader process recently described as
. While data about society in the past was produced by and belonged to
governments, nowadays it is controlled more and more by social media as private
Third, in a clever move to eliminate competition, Facebook acquired alternative social media
Instagram and WhatsApp. During a congressional hearing with anti-trust experts, law
professor Timothy Wu emphasized how dangerous this approach has been to innovation: "I
fear ... we will become a country where inventors and entrepreneurs dream of being bought,
not of building something of their own"
During the U.S. Democratic Primaries there has been a serious discussion about ―breaking up
big tech‖. Senator Elizabeth Warren claimed that big tech firms such as Amazon, Google and
Facebook should be broken up since they ―have too much power — too much power over our
economy, our society, and our democracy. They‘ve bulldozed competition, used our private
information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process,
they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation‖
. Senator Bernie Sanders also singled
out Facebook as having ―incredible power over the economy, over the political life of this
country in a very dangerous sense.‖
He also emphasized that vigorous anti-trust legislation
is needed because ―you are seeing—you name the area, whether it's pharmaceuticals, whether
it is Wall Street, whether it is high tech—fewer and fewer gigantic corporation owning those
Indeed, the Big Four have been particularly striking examples of concentration of power and
wealth, but in the aspect too, they are just part of a more general trend. Inequality within the
Western world has been steadily growing as the result of increasing power and influence of
big capital that can always threaten to move somewhere else. Big tech companies ―have
grown so powerful that they can bully cities and states into showering them with massive
taxpayer handouts in exchange for doing business, and can act — in the words of Mark
Zuckerberg — ‗more like a government than a traditional company‘‖
The rising power and wealth of corporations, including big tech ones, have gone hand in hand
with the diminishing power and resources of governments. For years, big tech companies
have used clever arrangements to pay as little tax as possible. After an EU-wide attempt at
digital tax failed
, in 2019, the French government introduced a 3 percent tax on sales
generated in France by multinationals such as Facebook and Google, sparking a row with the
Alphabet Inc‘s Google, Facebook Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. all spoke in support of
president Trump‘s administration critique of the French tax. President Trump even
considered punishing France with a tax on French wine
. Finally, a compromise was reached
to scrape the French digital services tax, once the OECD finds a way to properly tax digital
companies in the countries they operate
What all this comes to show is that instead of being some ethereal agents of empowerment
and democratization as it was often believed in the early days, social media have been very
concrete U.S. corporations engaging in market expansion, skilful tax avoidance, stifling
competition and monopolizing the field of digital services. What is more, social media have
often engaged in practices typical of late capitalism such as outsourcing, including famous
cases of outsourcing moderation of hateful content
. When discussing fake news, Facebook
has carefully pushed attention away from its business model
and has outsourced fact
checking to NGOs in an effort to avoid both the costs and the potential controversies
associated with content moderation
Social media, in short, are U.S. corporations in denial. They actively promoted the narrative
of decentralization and citizen empowerment. To paraphrase Elvis, they looked like ―digital
socialism‖, they talked like ―digital socialism‖ but they turned out to be pure capitalism in
Breaking up social media and regulating them have been proposed as key steps to save the
future of democracy
. This is simply not enough. Some authors have recently made a
plausible call for public ownership of social networks
. This approach should however be
combined with reinventing and reintroducing public ownership in a variety of other areas that
have been increasingly privatised – from transport to healthcare, education, and, you guessed
correctly, production. Equally importantly, the temptations of technocracy and populism
should be resisted in an attempt to restore meaning to party politics that is still better at
dealing with political conflicts than any tech platform could ever be.
Instead of offering a solution, social media have become part of the many problems
contemporary capitalism poses to us. Thinking of alternatives is more necessary and more
difficult than ever because of the extent to which social media have structured our life
experience, communication and political action. I certainly plan to share this article on social
media. Like it or not, probably that‘s also how you will find it.
If we want to change how social media operate, we should understand this change as part of a
broader push to change society itself. There can be no socialism on social media only. The
best way we can do this currently is by pressuring politicians and using the institutions we
have. The plot thickens and there is no technological deus ex machina to save us from our
messy dealings as political animals.
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