For years, social media has been hailed as a decentralized, democratic space, where anyone can say anything. Anyone can cultivate a platform for their passions, from a YouTube channel for reviewing movies, to a Tiktok account for showing off choreography skills. But is social media truly democratic? One key aspect of online disinhibition is the dissolution of social hierarchy and authority (Suler, 2004). As the Internet’s influence over the real world grows, though one cannot help but wonder: are these power dynamics really gone? Though technically democratic, one could argue that some voices definitely hold more power. Democracy, in the context of this argument, will hold two meanings: access to free speech, and uplift of one’s voice.
Free speech could be a whole essay on itself, with the subject debated both online and off. To many, it brings up a paradox. After all, what is more tolerant: letting everyone say their piece, no matter how controversial, or silencing extremists such as, for example, white supremacists? Some platforms, such as Twitter, have chosen the former. Briefly, the social media platform even had targeted ads for hate groups, allowing phrases like “white supremacists” and “anti-gay” to be used as interests (Tidy, 2020). While the technology in use is meant to personalize advertising by noting users’ interests and hobbies, there are concerns that targeted ads could also be used to spread extremist propaganda. All this, yet Twitter has in the past permanently banned people for anything that can be misconstrued as, for example, a threat of violence, like jokingly threatening a friend (Kerabatsos, 2018). Immediately, none of this looks very democratic, and every time Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey discusses the questionable practices, more grow concerned. Dorsey claimed in a 2018 statement that he hoped to keep “all voices” on the platform, for the sake of business, and that politics could not infringe on such decisions (Constine, 2018). Again, one must ask: is this truly free speech? Or is this a practice that endangers minorities for the sake of profit?
Beyond the questionable banning practices, some groups definitely appear more targeted than others. For example, celebrities are much less likely to get in trouble. That blue checkmark is, in many ways, a shield. One example of this is JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. Once a beloved figure, Rowling has come under fire for a number of reasons, such as transphobia, and her masculine pseudonym being lifted from one of the pioneers of conversion therapy (Nolan, 2020). Somehow, she still has her platform. In fact, one of the few things that can lead to consequences for verified users is going after someone higher in the social hierarchy. For example, formerly-verified user Alex Arbuckle lost his blue checkmark after using his account as a parody page against Elon Musk (Tenbarge, 2018).
Some platforms, like YouTube, tried the opposite approach of Twitter with active intervention, but this was not well-received. In fact, many creators on the video platform prefer what one calls their “anarchy” system (Alexander, 2019). Of course, this claim holds unfortunate implications considering who said it: Felix Kjellberg, AKA PewDiePie, is both one of YouTube’s biggest stars but also one of its most controversial, with a history of antisemitism accusations (Romano, 2018).
Twitter and YouTube are only two examples, but they are giants that in many ways fit the traditional idea of social media as a platform. They run on followers, rather than friends. They set the stage for a democratic space, and in many ways, they fail.
If one part of a democratic space is being able to say what you want, the other is knowing all voices will be equally heard. Unfortunately, that kind of space is not always the most profitable. Because of this, many social media platforms have shifted priorities. The big word on the medium right now is algorithm, which in theory does make sense. Some platforms, like Twitter, use it subtly: the app automatically opens with the feed displaying “Top Tweets” first, though it also allows you to switch to chronological order if you so desire. Facebook, meanwhile, did away with chronological feeds long ago and only this year has bothered to make it an option for people again (Hutchinson, 2020). Algorithms like this are meant to make people spend more time on the app, but many are tired of seeing the same days-old posts and want to see things as they happen.
Still, Facebook is not the worst example. On YouTube, creators and the system are in a constant war. One has even called it a “soulless algorithm that values quantity over quality in video content.” (Fischer, 2020). Unfortunately, this kind of algorithm does seem to be the future. Arguably more infamous than YouTube is Tiktok, known for its For You page, an algorithmically-run feature that gradually becomes more personalized as users interact with it. The algorithm is incredibly powerful, but unfortunately, not at all democratic. Tiktok has gone after LGBT content (Long, 2020). Tiktok has also gone after disabled people, and anyone they thought to be poor or ugly (Hern, 2020). Tiktok is likely the future, and that future is increasingly bleak.
Overall, while in theory social media is democratic, its owners know where the money is and will throw users aside to chase it. Whether through biases to celebrities or algorithms that suppress minorities, a distinct hierarchy remains. One that grows more apparent every day.
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