Following the Arab Spring in 2011, social media was hailed as a boon for democracy. Now, less than a decade later, the headlines are taking a different tone concern that social media is threatening democracy. There are many headlines about social media and its effect on government. It has become clear that this is a serious issue that needs to be examined, but it can be hard to understand because there are many different things going on--user privacy breaches, influencing campaigns, bots, foreign governments, fake news, etc.
"Right now, social media platforms have immense data sets that could be used in the service of democracy, and many academic researchers have the skills to analyze this data and provide insight," says Natalie Jomini Stroud, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies and School of Journalism at the University of Texas, Austin; director of the Center for Media Engagement at the College of Communication; assistant director of Research at UT's Institute for Civic Life; and the North American chair of Social Science One, an organization providing academic researchers with privacy-preserving access to Facebook in order to study the effects of social media on democracy and elections.
Stroud, author of Niche News: The Politics of News Choice, believes academic researchers can help dissect the data to better understand what is going on and how it could be turned around to help social media work better for democracy. "Social media platforms offer new ways for people to interact with the news, government, and each other.
"Not only can people share information and political opinions with their online networks, but political leaders have a more-direct way to reach the public, bypassing traditional media. Right now, I would say that the research is clear: social media can influence democratically important outcomes like polarization and participation.
"However:. she adds, "we need more research to understand exactly when social media has an effect and, even more, we need people thinking about how social media can be beneficial. There is a certain urgency because we know that there are bad actors attempting to use the platforms in ways that derail our democratic process, and it is imperative that we understand how best to thwart these attempts.
"By being mindful of what we're doing on social media, we all have a role to play in creating environments that further the cause of democracy. The news and political...