Many social media platforms advertise themselves off the back of pseudo-democratic systems designed to moderate and assure the quality of their content. Websites such as Reddit and have systems where users can “vote” certain posts to be shifted up or down in the order of appearance based on their value. Other websites such as Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram use likes as a way to allow users to collectively increase a post’s prominence. But there’s a level of risk that comes with accepting this “rule of the people” vision of the internet. There are a number of areas where the built-in systems on social media platforms does not hold up to this vision, and assuming otherwise— particularly on the part of a potential audience— hurts a publisher’s ability to communicate effectively.
A good starting point to explore this issue is with social media’s direct moderation. Social media websites have a legal obligation to remove certain kinds of content; On many sites, companies also remove legal content they deem too offensive for their site. According to a report written by John Laloggia, this is widely accepted as part of responsible site management. However, the study also shows a dearth of public trust in social media companies’ ability to reliably set and enforce these rules. Examining this report along with a few recent cases of social media websites failing to enforce their rules fairly starts to suggest a pattern of instability for content creators attempting to publicize themselves on these sites. The idea that social media platforms are always democratic would necessarily mean that this haphazard arbitration is just in every case, which would reduce unfairly censored publishers’ reputation and readership if this idea was accepted by their audience.
Arbitrary policy enforcement effects content creators and their audiences in relatively equal amounts, but there are more systems through which publishers specifically are hampered by the idea that social media platforms are democratic—News publishers in particular are especially harmed by a growing trend of audiences using social media websites to get their news. A study by A.W. Geiger shows that 20% of people now rely on social media to direct them to news sources. And while many social media platforms still direct traffic to digital news publishers, they’re rarely even-handed in which stories they cover. Another study conducted by Elisa Shearer and Elizabeth Greico shows that social media platforms primarily advertise news organizations with many followers and attention-grabbing or politically biased articles designed to maximize traffic, forcing traditional news sites to tailor their content to social media or lose viewers to websites who do. Social media websites serving as an arbiter between publishers and audiences is likely going to skew deals more in favour of these platforms and away from true democratic communication as long as they serve this function.
Both content creators and individuals are becoming aware of the kinds of message social media favours, which has prompted many attempts to exploit this system to bias in their favor. Recent worries about “Fake News” springs to mind as an example of this sort of exploitation on behalf of publishers, with tabloid journalism flourishing social media’s natural preference for the sort of sensational articles the journalistic style is known for. The article “The Science of Fake News” suggests that these sorts of fake news websites are harmful to the credibility of real news publishers, as public trust in mass media’s accuracy has dropped significantly when they became more prevalent in the years leading up to 2016. Audiences appear to be losing faith in mass media as they conceive the news they see publicized on social media platforms as representative of mass media as a whole.
Ultimately there are many issues with reading social media platforms as a completely democratic space to communicate. There may be aspects of social media that helps facilitate equitable communication, but there are many other areas where such a view can be a pitfall to consumers who expect to be connected to a published content in an objective manner. Social media platforms have the propensity to quash some voices and elevate others where it benefits their interests specifically, and are liable to be hijacked to spread misinformation for a third party’s benefit. Many of these flaws would be completely crippling in any other democratic system, and it’s really great that all three of these aren’t actually major contemporary problems of North America’s political systems. But for the benefit of publishers, social media isn’t the only place to get your voice heard. Advertising yourself on other websites such as blogs, radio or even just organizing yourself in physical space are alternatives can serve publishers going into the future.
- LaLoggia, J. (2019, July 11). U.S. public has little confidence in social media companies to determine offensive content. Retrieved November 8, 2019, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/07/11/u-s-public-has-little-confidence-in-social-media-companies-to-determine-offensive-content/
- Geiger, A. W. (2019, September 11). Key findings about the online news landscape in America. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/11/key-findings-about-the-online-news-landscape-in-america/
- Shearer, E. & Grieco, E. (2019, October 2). Americans Are Wary of the Role Social Media Sites Play in Delivering the News. Retrieved from https://www.journalism.org/2019/10/02/americans-are-wary-of-the-role-social-media-sites-play-in-delivering-the-news/.
- Lazer, David & Baum, Matthew & Benkler, Yochai & Berinsky, Adam & Greenhill, Kelly & Menczer, Filippo & Metzger, Miriam & Nyhan, Brendan & Pennycook, Gordon & Rothschild, David & Schudson, Michael & Sloman, Steven & Sunstein, C. & Thorson, Emily & Watts, Duncan & Zittrain, Jonathan. (2018). The science of fake news. Science. 359. 1094-1096. 10.1126/science.aao2998.