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Interaction Between Social Media and Democracy

Interaction Between Social Media and Democracy

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Published by: ankitsharm on Jun 01, 2011
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Essentially, MSD theory focuses on information as a resource which generates power. The power the
media has on the individual and vice versa is closely related to the level of democracy in a society. Having
the right to vote is not enough for citizens to be given a free choice instead of a manipulated one (Ball-
Rokeach & Jung, 2009; Peña-López, 2010).
It is presumed that the Internet levels the power as citizens participate in generating information and by
doing so have more influence on the media system (Gore, 1995; Smith, 2010). Also Kittilson and Dalton
(2008) perceive the Internet as an important enabler of democracy: “Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville
stressed the importance of America’s vibrant associational life, democratic theorists have examined the
relationship between participation in voluntary associations and the skills and norms that underlie a stable

and effective democracy….While early Internet usage was mostly a one way flow of information with little

interaction, social media has made the Internet interactive. Traditional sources of social capital are
declining, but citizens connect to social groups who share their cultural, social or political interests. The
virtual civil society has the same positive effect for citizen norms and political involvement as traditional civil

society and lead to higher levels of political participation.” This section will describe research on the effects
of the Internet on democratization and individuals.

Examining this effect of the Internet is even more complex than examining the effect of old media forms
like radio and television broadcasts. With new, social media forms like blogging, video sharing, podcasts,
and social networking there is no stable media system which can be examined: “The blurring of media

forms makes the study of media effects increasingly problematic. Social media blur the once-clear distinction
between interpersonal and mass communication. This is a big challenge to the media effects theorist.”
Rokeach & Jung, 2009) The media system is constantly evolving as it joins old and new media forms and


represents a large variety of information systems. This evolving media system however, has such an
important societal role that in developed countries even small outages can seem catastrophic for
businesses and individuals that all take part in a global information network (Ball-Rokeach & Jung, 2009).
Empirically examining the environmental origin of a dependency relationship that crosses levels of
analysis from media producers (macro) to media consumers (micro) becomes continuously more
problematic as the distinction between producers and consumers becomes more vague (Ball-Rokeach &
Jung, 2009). Ball-Rokeach (1985) already acknowledged the complexity of empirical studies on the effects
of radio and television broadcasts and emphasized this statement in a recent paper, published with Jung
(2009) in light of the recent developments.
Measuring the effect of specific broadcasts and websites is by scholars perceived to be problematic and
studies measuring the effect of social media platforms like Ushahidi have not been done yet (Ball-Rokeach
& Jung, 2009). However, analysis of data on a macro-level is possible. One good example is the research of

Figure 6 - Hypothetical Model for the influence of Communication Technologies and Endogenous Sociocultural
Structures on Democratic Growth Based on Relationships Identified by MSD theory (Groshek, 2009)


Groshek (2009) in which he examined what effect increased Internet diffusion has had on democratic
growth in developed and developing countries by analyzing macro-level panel data for 152 countries from
1994 to 2003 using a MSD-theory framework. Groshek (2009) uses MSD-theory to explain how Internet
diffusion could affect democracies because of two reasons. The first reason is that the greater the number
and centrality of information functions, the greater the audience and societal dependency on that medium.
The second reason is that media diffusion and dependency increase over time and the potential effects
will increase even more when there is a high degree of structural instability in society (Ball-Rokeach &
Jung, 2009; Groshek, 2009).
Groshek (2009) also addresses the ‘prosumer’ characteristics of the Internet: “Internet diffusion subsumes

the actual growth of the Internet itself, which addresses both the number and centrality of information
functions identified by media system dependency theory. That is, increased Internet diffusion and access
creates a situation whereby information available on the Internet grows exponentially through user creation
and participation as the Internet reaches more and more individuals, which can be assumed to increase the

number and centrality of information functions online for specific communities and nations.”

While the Internet is an infinite repository of information and all consumers can produce information,
many Internet users are overwhelmed by the amount of information and use the Internet only for email
and entertainment. So, although these users are technically empowered to use the Internet to monitor
their government to ensure the protection of human rights they often do not use this power (Groshek,
Groshek (2009) formed the hypothesis that Internet diffusion predicts increased democracy across all
countries, based on the MSD-theory, and examined the effect of the variables urbanism, education,
resources, media development, sociopolitical instability and democracy, that were earlier identified by
Weaver et al. (1985) in their study on the relationship between media and economic productivity. The
variables Internet diffusion, UN Human Development Index, and population (control variable) were added
(see Figure 6). The findings suggest that Internet diffusion has a meaningful effect on democracy, which
was measured using the Polity 2 democracy scores ("Polity IV Annual Time-Series Database," 2007), The
data also suggest that countries that were already more democratic diffused the Internet more and
therefore the positive effect of Internet diffusion on democracies was greater in countries that were
partially democratic already. The democratizing effect of the Internet seems limited among non-
democratic countries but also proved statistically significant. Groshek (2009) assumes this difference is
caused by limitations in these countries because of national policies and measures like filtration software
to limit the free flow of information.
Groshek (2009) stipulates that Internet diffusion does have a positive effect while earlier studies on radio
and television diffusion measured a negative effect on democracy in non-democratic countries. Still, the
positive effect of Internet diffusion on democracy is modest.

One of the few researches that uses a macro context analysis to examine the influence of the Internet on
individual media system dependency has been conducted by Tai and Sun (2007). They conducted a case
study on the SARS-outbreak in China in 2003. The Propaganda Ministry instructed the Chinese media not
to report news on the SARS-outbreak while international media reported on the outbreaks already. The
Internet and SMS became increasingly important for the spread of information: “In the past, Chinese

audience relied heavily on western shortwave radio broadcasts, fax machines and international phone lines
to obtain information not available from the state-run media. But during the SARS crisis, the internet and
SMS emerged as viable alternatives and in some cases, as the main sources of information for people in China,

especially in the early phase of the outbreak.”

As people tend to not trust news sent through SMS, they seek confirmation or disconfirmation. Since
official sources would not confirm the news, rumors began to emerge on the street and pressured the
government to respond. “SMS played a major role in breaking the news to local residents. The Internet only


played a marginal role in communication information about the disease. However, SMS alone did not

constitute a credible source for most people….The internet played a much more important role when the
epidemic contaminated more areas.”
(Tai & Sun, 2007)
The government was aware of the spread of information on the Internet and sent directives to website
managers to remove postings about deadly diseases. Chinese civilians sought alternative ways to get
answers to their questions and used chat rooms and bulletin boards. Web administrators were more
tolerant towards these forms of publication (Tai & Sun, 2007).
Tai and Sun (2007) found that “more than 40 % of the respondents first heard about SARS through sources
other than the mainstream media.”
General observation on the role of the Internet and SMS on individual
media system dependency is that, during political instability, internet high-connectors intensify their
internet-usage while internet low-connectors narrow their media usage to mass media. Also, the changes
of information and communication technology changes the whole media system as the Internet is
integrated in the media system and its reach into personal and social life’s is broadened. “People have

broken away from state-orchestrated ideological indoctrination by the mass media and are increasingly

demanding information that is directly relevant and useful to them.” (Tai & Sun, 2007)

Peña-López (2010) tries to explain the relation between Internet diffusion and democracy and argues that
the positive effect of the Internet for citizens is explained by the fact that it can be used to debate,
negotiate and share opinions and ideas through the Internet, especially social media appliances. Citizens
who have access to the Internet hypothetically should not experience information scarcity because when
information becomes digital, it can be reproduced and transferred freely when basic infrastructures and
connectivity services are provided. Before the Internet, civilians were much more dependent on the media
and it was also much harder to get specific information which was, for example, stored in Government’s
paper archives or Libraries. There are now large amounts of data available for everyone to reuse and
remix. Also, people had to be physically together to share their opinions and the transaction costs of
getting people together, coordinating their communication and trying to reach consensus were huge. The
Internet lowers these barriers and allows every user to participate outside the mainstream media (Peña-
López, 2010).

Social media and other Web 2.0 appliances have many sociopolitical consequences. Citizens have the
ability to participate in debates, monitor their government, are well and timely informed, have more
information channels to compare information and new multimedia information delivery helps to better
understand complex issues. Also, more marginal and local topics can now be covered. On the other hand,
managing an online identity and building a status in online communities becomes increasingly important.
Political parties have new channels to reach citizens and also the way in which information is spread
changes. For governments there are more requirements for transparency and accountability as there is
more ‘social control’ and citizens demand an open government (Peña-López, 2010).
Although the Internet has the potential to foster a further democratization of society, the utilization of this
sociopolitical potential is problematic because of factors outside the technical potential of the Internet.
Peña-López (2010) argues that “the possibilities and potentials are actually there but turning them into
realities is another matter.”
For example, 30 % of EU citizens has never used the Internet, and Internet
usage in development countries is marginal (Peña-López, 2010). There is a gap between people who are
not or marginally involved in social media and those who actively use social media. This gap is often
referred to as the digital divide (Norris, 2001). Ushahidi tries to overcome some technical barriers by
enabling mobile phones but infrastructure (hardware, software, connectivity) is not the only thing that is
needed to close this gap (Peña-López, 2009). Peña-López (2010) argues an economically flourishing ICT
sector, citizens with sufficient digital skills, a government that creates policies and regulations to govern
the digital economy, and the availability of content and services are also needed.


Peña-López (2010) argues that digital skills can be divided into five literacy’s. Technological Literacy
covers the basic skills to interact with hardware and software, Informational Literacy covers the user’s

ability to get and manage information, Media Literacy is the ability to deal with different Media and
integrating them to create richer information, Digital Presence is the ability of user’s to establish a digital
identity, and the highest stage is e-Awareness, where one is aware on “how the world and our position – as
a person, group, firm, institution – varies because of digital technologies.”
Only a fraction of the population
masters all these five literacy’s and therefore, even in the western countries, there is a digital elite. In
practice, therefore, the same hierarchies in the ‘offline world’ exist in the ‘online world’. For example,
bloggers with a lot of influence in the real world benefit from that influence online and people with little
influence read their blogs at a huge scale while their own blogs have little influence. Also, people tend to
use the Internet to receive information that confirms their current believe and information contradicting
those believes is filtered out more effectively then with traditional mass media (Dahlgren, 2009; Peña-
López, 2010).

The risk of crowdsourcing tools like Ushahidi is that ‘truth’ is not guaranteed but the idea of
crowdsourcing is that with enough volume the truth will cancel out the false reports. In the case of
Ushahidi there are examples of false reports of violence which caused a response of reports saying there
was no violence in the area (Okolloh, 2009). In his book on crowdsourcing, Howe (2009) argues that in
crowdsourcing projects, there must be someone in charge to make critical decisions about what to do, and
especially what not to do. Howe also argues crowdsourcing projects require a ‘benevolent dictator’ who
understands the socio-technical behavior of social media-using public, to help impose order and guide the
community. In most crowdsourcing projects, 1 % of the crowd creates the content, 10 % will validate it,
and the other 89 % will consume the content that is created.


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