Mirko Tobias Schäfer / Assistant Professor
University of Utrecht Department for Media and Culture Studies

A Shattered Public Sphere How    
Social Media Platforms Transform the    
Political Debate


Once, social media were heralded as means for emancipating citizens, for balancing power asymmetries and allowing common people to inform themselves and express their opinions. Today, we associate social media with fake news, hate speech and manipulative algorithms. After more than two decades of the World Wide Web, social media have emerged as powerful brokers of attention, channelling access to information and connecting audiences. The platform providers appear in parliamentary hearings as deceitful as they seem to be reluctant to fix their problematic services. After Brexit, Trump and the emergence of right-wing populism, policy makers and commentators argued that social media platforms undermine the open society through constituting filter bubbles and disseminating fake news and hate speech. This chapter explains how we went from being enthusiastic about social media to being disappointed.

But it is not enough to blame social media platforms for the current situation. We have to look at the interplay of technological affordances and media practices, economic interests and institutional change. Looking at the notion of the public sphere and how it shaped our understanding of engaging in political debate and participating in an open society, this article critically revisits our far-fetched expectations of technology as an engine of democratic progress. Introducing the term of implicit participation, I show how social media platforms were successful in implementing media practices into easy-to-use interfaces and in channelling user activities. It cannot be emphasized enough that this constituted the engagement of large audiences indifferent to the inherent values of the public sphere and the open society. Rejecting the notion of the filter bubble, I show how users engage with media content and how mainstream media are engaging with social media. In conclusion, this chapter exposes the policy reactions to the perceived threats of fake news and hate speech as inappropriate, inefficient and actually damaging for the open society and the public sphere.

Download the entire article here.

Image CC by  tetsuo shimizu

tetsuo shimizu

Date July 2019 Category News

For our seminar Markets and Corporations in the Open Society, I wrote an article about how social media platforms transform the political debate. Policy makers and journalists often blame social media for disseminating fake news, spreading hate speech, manipulating audiences and creating filter bubbles. However, this techno-determinist view neglects user practices and the role of mainstream media in amplifying social media messages. This article shows why most policy efforts currently underway are ill-informed and will rather limit freedom of speech and access to information.

The article will be part of an edited volume that is about to be published in September at Boom. The book launch will take place during the IOS Toogdag on 12 September.

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