The content that exists on social media can be seen as a reflection of the beliefs and values of the society that we live in. Moreover, any rules and censorship we see occurring on some digital platform, is a result of the demands from those using the site. Much like in a democratic community, norms and rules on social media are born to serve the values of the majority. Therefore, pieces of content that are acceptable on Reddit, may be prohibited on Instagram, due to a different user demographic with unique values and demands. In this blog post I will be discussing how social media mirrors real life society and fosters a democratic space for dialogue, through exploration of equal access to create, rules and regulations relative to status, and the subsequent development of subcultures.
Creating Equal Voice
A critical component of a democratic space is equipping each identified member of the community with an equal voice (Annan, 2022). This framework is prevalent in the digital space, and reflected in Facebook’s mission statement, which vows to empower all individuals to share content and increase connectivity on the platform (Baym, 2015). Similarly, any individual of appropriate age has the ability to register an account and become a member and contributor to virtually any social media platform. Although each user may have differing levels of influence in the digital community, every user has equal ability to engage and contribute on a platform, by creating and disseminating content of their choice. Historically, only news outlets and very large public figures were able to participate in important discussions on this scale. Therefore, developing a channel for information and discussion outside of controlled media provides “a voice to the voiceless” (Olaniran & Williams, 2020) to communicate with audiences larger than ever before. Therefore, from a superficial view, digital spaces appear to enable and enhance democratic dialogue.
Rules & Regulations
However, research suggests that social media can also have negative implications on democracy. Equal, unregulated voice allows for the dangerous spread of disinformation, propaganda, and hate speech through disruptive voices that would otherwise be censored in traditional media (Olaniran & Williams, 2020). Therefore, we see some rightful limitations placed on what content can and cannot be disseminated on particular platforms. Much like in a democratic society, these rules and regulations depend on “the will of the people” (Annan, 2022). Therefore, nearly every platform has some sort of Community Guidelines page that outlines the rules for engaging on the site. For example, Instagram guidelines work to prevent content such as nudity, hate speech, terrorism, organized crime, and overly graphic material from being shared (Meta, 2022). These rules align with democratic ideology, as this content is considered unacceptable to the general population. Therefore, while diehard fans of harmful creators will always exist, the consensus of site bans aligning with such guidelines is typically positive and is accepted by the majority of users of the respective platform. Moreover, if the platform fails to take action against harmful creators, public demand is typically shown until action is taken.
An example of this is popular creator, Andrew Tate, being banned across multiple platforms including Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Twitch for boasting anti-women and right-wing extremist ideologies (Boom, 2022). Many users, including popular creators, voiced their differing opinions on the matter. However, the general public seemed satisfied with the ban of Tate across platforms (Dexerto, 2022), recognizing the dangerous real-world implications of his language and influence.
Rules & Regulation in Relation to Status
Therefore, we can observe that our digital society mimics how our democratic society works in real life when it comes to the regulation of power for prominent individuals. For instance, if we do not agree with elected political figures’ ideals, we can collectively choose to vote them out of power. Alternatively, in the online space, if a creator or content is deemed harmful, the public can demand the platform removes it. Parallels can also be observed on a smaller, individual scale. In real life, when we do not agree with an individual, we choose to stop communicating with them. In the digital space, the equivalent is unfollowing. However, unfollowing does not thwart an individual’s overall influence in the same way as real life social outcasting does, as these users can easily move to alternate digital spaces with like-minded individuals.
The Rise of Minority Subcultures
This phenomena leads to the rise of subcultures in the digital space. Spaces such as Reddit forums are an excellent example of this, as they are accessible to all and make it easy to locate like minded individuals. Moreover, users are primarily anonymous on Reddit, rendering it difficult for any one user to gain mass popularity and public attention on the site. This feature allows for content that would normally be deemed inappropriate by the general public, to fly under the radar. For example, Reddit is notoriously known for hosting a subculture of incel (involuntary celibate) men on their platform (Helm et al., 2021). These users engage in and spread violent and misogynistic rhetoric that would be deemed unacceptable by the public if expressed by prominent creators on other platforms. However, because these discussions and behaviour is normalised and deemed acceptable by the users of Reddit and this subculture, it continues. This is another example of digital dialogue operating in democratic fashion.
The overall result is a democratically functioning system for the regulation of content on social media, with material deemed “unacceptable” by the majority, finding alternate homes where it is desired. This digital democracy is executed through providing equal access to create, and developing rules and regulations for prominent individuals as a result of user demands. Moreover, this framework therefore leads to the rise of internet subcultures, as a place for voices outside the majority to reside. Overall, the digital space mimics real life, and provides space for democratic creation and dissemination of content for all
Annan, K. (2022). What is democracy?. Compass. https://www.coe.int/en/web/compass/democracy
Baym, N. (2015, June). Social media and the struggle for society. Social media + society, 1(1). https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2056305115580477
Boom, D. (2022, November 6). Why Andrew Tate is banned from almost every social media platform. CNET. https://www.cnet.com/culture/why-andrew-tate-is-banned-from-almost-every-social-media-platform/#:~:text=Tate%27s%20comments%20about%20women%20a
Dexerto. (2022, August 20). Jake Paul, SomeOrdinaryGamer, and more speak out against Andrew Tate Instagram ban. Dexerto. https://www.dexerto.com/entertainment/andrew-tate-banned-facebook-instagram-jake-paul-someordinarygamer-1909650/
Helm, B., Scrivens, R., Holt, T., Chermak, S., & Frank, R. (2022, May 16). Examining incel subculture on Reddit. Journal of Crime and Justice. https://www-tandfonline-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/doi/pdf/10.1080/0735648X.2022.2074867?needAccess=true
Meta. (2022). Community Guidelines. Instagram. https://help.instagram.com/477434105621119
Olaniran, B. & Williams, I. (2020, February 27). Social Media Effects: Hijacking Democracy and Civility in Civic Engagement. PubMed Central. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7343248/pdf/978-3-030-36525-7_Chapter_5.pdf