The survivability of the human race is propelled by its ability to exist as a community and it is through our history that we can understand the revolutionary economics and political changes that have brought us a satisfactory quality of life. One such change is the dramatic spread of democracy.
According to Pew Research Center, as of 2017, 96 countries, with populations of over 500,000, (57%) were democracies of some kind and only 21 (13%) were autocracies compared to 1977 when 89 countries (62%) were classified as autocracies. An interesting overlap during this period is the emergence of the digital age, as the prototype for the internet was developed only four years prior to 1974.
Hence, this article will be investigating what role digital media plays in the continuation of democracy. Specifically, I will argue that digital media hinders democracy as it may spread biased and misleading information and belittle the sense of belonging of people.
To understand the impacts of digital media on democracy, we first must understand what exactly these two key terms entail. Electronic Media is defined as an umbrella term often treated as synonymous with new media or computer-mediated communication which includes social media. Currently 4.66 billion people (59% of the global population) are active internet users. This new era presents our generation with the gift of knowledge at convenience, and it is undeniable that mass media has facilitated raising awareness on what goes on socially, politically and economically all over the world. This has fuelled global socio-participation rates and only in 2020, a year plagued with a global pandemic that requires people to stay home, there are still more than 50 large-scale protests ongoing around the world.
The definition of direct democracy is often characterized by the direct participation of citizens into the political process. Furthermore, virtues of democracy include Accountable Governance, Transparency as well as Peaceful Transfer of Power. In the modern digital age, it is also popularly believed that free press is a prerequisite for democracy to be sustained, given that it can freely monitor and convey factual reports on the governments’ works.
Despite social convention dictating that whatever the media preaches is fact-based, technological advancements have allowed people to produce life-like pictures, videos and audios that never occurred at all. Today, these productions are known as "DeepFakes". With this tech savvy software, anyone can conjure up media as they wish. All it takes is pictures of the subject involved, and the software Neural Network, which quickly makes statistical connections to create fake graphics. The technology has even advanced to the point at which it can self-improve and overcome networks that are specifically created to spot out doctored media.
Hence, it is critical to note that there are immense detrimental impacts of such widespread misinformation. This poses a serious threat as a report based on the 2020 US Elections dictate that 48% of people under 30 depend on social media for political news. Hence, if what is reported on digital media is easily fabricated using software such as DeepFake or simply just viral fake news, voters’ understanding of election candidates and the socio-political climate may heavily be swayed and democracy may be hindered given that people don’t truly know who or what cause they are voting for.
History has shown that governments don’t have much issue manipulating facts, promoting propaganda and spreading false information for political gains. One of the most notorious cases is the 2016 US presidential election when Russia disseminated misinformation on Facebook to influence public sentiment. It was found that Russian Entities created 80,000 posts that reached around 126 million people in the US over a two-year period. Moreover, they were also discovered to be meddling and hacking into the emails of Democrat Elect Hilary Clintons’ campaign staff. While the magnitude of these impacts is debated to date, it is undeniable that this will not be the last cyber foreign interference as technology continues to progress.
The ‘media malaise’ theory claims that as digital media operated in democracies often operate in regards to the market mechanism, they disregard their democratic duties. This is said to result in severe hindrance for democracy, causing apathy, cynicism and ignorance with regard to politics among citizens. From an economic standpoint, Economics is deeply rooted in our everyday life. Money is manifested power, and it will only amplify who one is as a person, meaning that while a good person with money will do good deeds at a larger scale, a bad person will only exaggerate his actions with money.
This is what makes corporations an essential part of society. Corporates often prioritize profit maximization and with Adam Smith's invisible hand theory teaches us that those who prioritize self-interest are likely to become successful, this puts the media in a particularly tricky position. Even though the media industry initially existed to inform and educate, it is frightening to wonder whether we see more and more exaggerated headings, and articles that are blown out of proportion, or if we will see more news outlets like Fox News who is notorious for spreading its right-wing agenda. If such is the case, it will be most unlikely that voters will be able to make an informed choice, thus hindering the aim of democracy.
Due to advancement of technology, the vast increase in usage of mobile phones has facilitated the usage of virtual globalization. With western countries greatly dominating the music, film and entertainment industry, young people all over the world are easily and frequently exposed to their culture. This enables them to take more interest in cultures other than their own.
Furthermore, westernization enables them to be more aware of the political and social situation of other countries while their home country may not be dominant in the global media industry. Thus, it may decrease their awareness, level of understanding and curiosity in relation to the socio-political climate of their own nation, which will ultimately reduce their sense of belonging.
Like most things, digital media has its virtues and its vices. Hence, it is crucial that its benefits are also analyzed critically before drawing definite conclusions. Digital media has been credited for its exceptional facilitation of social movements through the ‘mobilization’ perspective. This perspective entails that the media should be held to a more practical assessment, and that mobilization theorists conclude that media provides enough information for citizens to recognize when their interests are in danger, and that media consumption increases civic engagements.
A note-worthy example is the #MeTooMovement. The Movement started in October 2017, when Alyssa Milano, a Hollywood actress, encouraged the usage of the hashtag to allow more people to come forward with their sexual assault experience. Within 24 hours, the hashtag was used more than 200,000 times on twitter while, on Facebook, it was used by more than 4.7 million people in 12 million posts during the first 24 hours.
Soon, high ranking celebrities such as Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar, came under fire after it was revealed that they were sexual abusers. After this movement, people have become more conscious of their actions and its impacts whilst justice has also been served to the victims of this heinous crime. While digital media may have helped increase socio-political participation and civic engagement of the public in some ways, it has also caused Unequal Participation.
The impacts of such movements often distort policymakers’ perception of public opinion. While it is often mobilized by the youth and excluding any type of racial, sexual or class intersection, not every group in society is as equally vocal as others. If politicians regard the opinions of the majority with the minority, public policy can be negatively affected. This will further highlight a major danger of democracy that it may allow for the tyranny of the majority. Vulnerable groups in society could continue to be marginalized as the mainstream policies continue to exclude them.
Hence, it can be concluded that fake news, foreign interference, political agendas and media bias propel the digital media to hinder democracy rather than facilitate it. Although the many benefits of the media must be observed, perhaps, it is about time that more is done to preserve these benefits which can only be done by ensuring that what is circulated in the virtual world is of absolute fact, serving no political agenda. It is only when this is guaranteed that the people can exercise their monumental right to vote by making an informed choice.
(Deepmala Kharel-Dhakal is a Finance Student at The University of Hong Kong and a 2022 United Nations Millennium Fellow with a passion to understand the socio-economic workings of the world.)