Can social media have a positive effect on democracy?

Given the seemingly never-ending litany of transgressions we find all around us on social-media platforms—whether it’s Facebook giving up data to Cambridge Analytica and being manipulated by Russian trolls, or Twitter’s complicity in racism and online harassment—it’s difficult to imagine a case being made that social media in general is anything but a looming danger to society and democracy.

Despite this, however, Ethan Zuckerman—who runs the Center for Civic Media at MIT and teaches at MIT’s Media Lab—did his best to put together a list of the ways in which social media can or should help democracy and society, in a post he published Wednesday on his blog and at Medium. Whether his argument ultimately succeeds or not is hard to say, but it’s a worthwhile question. As Zuckerman puts it:

I’m interested in what social media should do for us as citizens in a democracy. We talk about social media as a digital public sphere, invoking Habermas and coffeehouses frequented by the bourgeoisie. Before we ask whether the internet succeeds as a public sphere, we ought to ask whether that’s actually what we want it to be.

Zuckerman uses as his template an essay that Columbia journalism professor (and CJR board member) Michael Schudson wrote as part of his 2008 book Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press, in which he argues that good journalism can accomplish a number of things that are worthwhile for society—including informing the public, investigating important issues, analyzing complex topics and serving as a tool for social empathy.

So what can social media do? Zuckerman says that at its best, social networks can also inform us about significant news events, as Twitter and Facebook did during the Arab Spring in Egypt and the killing of Michael Ferguson by police in Missouri. And they can amplify important voices, he says. “By sharing content with small personal networks on social media, individuals signal the issues they see as most important and engage in a constant process of self-definition.” He argues social media can also show us diverse views and perspectives, and provide a place for informed debate.

Anyone who has spent any time on Twitter—or Facebook for that matter—discussing issues like the 2016 election of Donald Trump or the rise of the “alt right” in US politics might laugh at the idea that social platforms can show us diverse views or be a place for informed debate. And Zuckerman admits that every beneficial aspect he mentions can have a significant downside:

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The tools that allow marginalized people to report their news and influence media are the same ones that allow fake news to be injected into the media ecosystem. Amplification is a technique used by everyone from Black Lives Matter to neo-Nazis. The bad news is that making social media work better for democracy likely means making it work better for the Nazis as well.

In the end, Zuckerman argues that if we are to expect better from platforms like Facebook and Twitter, then we need to know what it is we want them to do—what service do we think they can or should perform in a civil society? “If our response to the shortcomings of contemporary social media is to move beyond the idea that we should burn it all down,” he writes, “then it’s critical that we ask what social media can do for democracy and demand that it play its part.” Whether the platforms will listen is a different question.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.