Nowadays, people have access to all kinds of social media sites such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat among others which they use to post unfiltered opinions, comments, start a trend or even an online debate. One would think that everyone using the different platforms have equal rights to post about certain controversial topics related to racism, culture differences, politics, body shaming, sexism, immigration, globalization, human rights and behaviours among others. In most instances, all members of the public have equal freedom of expression (West. S..M, 2018). John Suler talks about minimization of authority and creating free and equal spaces for people to voice themselves as their influence on other internet users depends on their communication skills , qualitative ideas, technical abilities and tenacity regardless of their power, wealth, race, gender(Suler. J, 2004). So this means that both a president and a member of the public posting controversial and offensive contents have an equal chance of being suspended from an online platform? Or someone having a million followers on twitter has equal likelihood of being locked out as someone having a hundred followers? He also says that “ …one’s status in the outside world ultimately may have some impact on one’s powers in cyberspace…” based on which we can also argue that sometimes social media platforms are not quite as democratic as we would assume it to be (Suler. J, 2004). So how democratic is the online world?
To gain some insight, let’s focus on the person who is claiming that he is making America great again, President Donald Trump, and his relationship with Twitter.
In July 2018, Trump posted an all-caps tweet: “ ……..CONSEQUENCES THE LIKE OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE….” with the objective of menacing the Iranian President.
Twitter’s policy includes the point that threats of violence can lead to getting suspended from the platform (Twitter, n.d). So for example; if someone threatens to hurt their neighbour with a knife online it means that they could be kicked off twitter for violation of the policies. In our case study, the President threatened an entire country but his post did not lead to him getting banned from Twitter. Twitter treats the President differently from other members of the public. According to a blog post that twitter published, they said that “ Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate.” (Twitter, n.d). Their perception is that controversial tweets posted by political figures creates discussion and help hold them accountable. However, it might just be that given that Trump is a powerful twitter user whose posts may be controversial and offensive but which also increases the social media site’s visibility even though one of their policies states that “ No one person’s account drives Twitter’s growth, or influences these decision. We work hard to remain unbiased with the public interest in mind” (Twitter, n.d).
Based on this event, one could argue both sides of the level of democracy online.
On one hand, twitter does not really seem to be democratic as they did not ban a user who threatened to hurt an entire country thereby promoting violence because of his political status and influence on the general public. However, a lot of ‘regular’ users have been suspended for posting menacing tweets. There is an apparent inequality unlike what John Suler says about the extent of influence of the posts being dependent on the quality of writing of the content and not on the status the individual posting has (Suler. J, 2004).
On the other hand, there is another side of democracy that we might be ignoring and failing to understand and consider. It is assumed that having democratic social media platforms only mean that everyone can post digital content equally regardless of their power, wealth, race or gender. However, online democracy might also imply everyone having the freedom of staying informed about the world and think for themselves based on the unfiltered and undeleted contents they all get access to (Ilyova, 2017). The case study might also suggest that twitter is being democratic by letting all users to read the tweets of a powerful leader, engage in discussion and debates related to his posted controversial content, gain more understanding on an issue, getting the chance to effectively participate and also form their own opinions about Trump’s intentions and perceptions.
Arguing whether social media platforms we use are democratic or not might not provide us with one answer favouring one side of the coin. Personally, I believe that it depends on people’s different perspectives. If someone is offended because they might have been suspended from twitter for writing offensive or racist comments and comparing their situation to Trump, then maybe to them the online site is not democratic as they are not getting the same level of freedom of expression. However, if a user likes to stay informed and have the opportunity to understand a situation without the content being filtered or deleted, they might believe that the online platforms are democratic since they are getting equal access to information to decide how to view a certain situation and think for themselves.
Ilyova.B. March 2017. Social Media: Do they enhance or erode democracy?
Suler.J. June 2004. The Online Disinhibition Effect. CyberPsychology and Behavior. pg 321-326.
Twitter.(n.d). Twitter Rules and policies.Retrieved from https://help.twitter.com/en/rules-and-policies#general-policies
West.S.M. November 2018. Censored, suspended, shadowbanned: User interpretations o content moderation on social media platforms. New Media & Society. Vol: 20(11) , pg 4366-4383.