From Hero To Villain: The Transformation Of Social Media’s Relationship With Liberal Democracy


The rapid change in how social media has been perceived by the public since the rise of populism in liberal democratic countries in 2016 has been astonishing. Whereas previously, social media was held up as the beacon of liberalism, post-2016 social media is viewed with increased suspicion by its former champions. It was once believed that the spread of the internet and the borderless communication platforms that rely on it will democratize the political process and empower marginalized groups, to give voice where there was none in the traditional media outlets. However, the world has instead found that the internet has the potential to empower autocrats, radicals and extremists, as well as being exceptionally good at sowing discord in liberal democratic societies. Added to this mix is an increasingly likely future of tightening regulation of cyberspace, as even social media’s traditional champions such as the U.S. and the U.K. are looking to roll back open internet and impose some form of national control. Once being a champion of liberal Democrats and social activists, social media is increasingly looked upon as a threat to these very values.

When social media first became prominent as a tool of political mobilization, many scholars and media analysts were advocating the potential of the new communication platforms to bring down autocracies and foster a new form of horizontal, democratic organization. After all, it was believed that due to its sheer volume and how vital it is to the modern economy, the internet simply cannot be regulated like traditional media. This unregulated platform, together with the egalitarian nature of social media where anyone can post, share, and expose corruption and government falsehoods, will undermine the methods of social control used by autocracies and allow liberal democracy to flourish by imbuing people with individualism and undermine traditional hierarchical values. This optimistic prediction seemed to validate itself in the early days of the Arab Spring, during protests in Iran, and the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. Social media seemed so powerful because it addressed both the problems of government control over information and the problem of the lack of widespread acceptance of liberal values in many non-democratic societies. Even when social media organized protests failed to topple their governments, or when the end result of the revolutions was religious or nationalist radicals coming to power, these failures could be attributed to social immaturity or political hijacking by radicals. Faith in the resilience and attractiveness of liberal democracy and the power of social media to promote the spread of liberal democratic institutions remained relatively firm until the shocking reversals of Brexit and the 2016 U.S. Election, when social media seemed to turn on liberal democracy with the aid of authoritarian governments that have adapted to social media much better than many liberals had believed possible.

The more recent elections and referendums in the liberal democratic West have shown how social media and popular mobilization can be used to oppose liberal democracy. With phenomena such as the rise of populism, increased political polarization, and unsourced falsehoods running rampant all heavily linked to social media usage, social media has been transformed from hero to villain in the eyes of many. Accusations of Russian interventions in Brexit and the election of Donald Trump through online disinformation campaigns and causing outrage through social networks that tipped the vote in favour of illiberal forces are the most prominent cases. The increased technological sophistication of illiberal populists, religious extremists, and general anti-democratic movements in making use of social media to spread their propaganda are also alarming many supporters of liberal democracy. The fact that opponents of liberal democracy have proven to be just as apt in using social media demonstrates that social media is not inherently prone to favouring liberal democracy. If anything, recent events show that social media, while not hierarchically organized like traditional media outlets, also have their own types of power dynamics and methods of control and manipulation. The existence of these dynamics between social media users and managers and how they interact with the public are not necessarily favourable to those that want to create a reasonable or balanced public sphere.

It is becoming apparent that, despite the initial egalitarian appearance of social media, these media platforms are just as prone to manipulation and control as any of the traditional media outlets. The army of internet bloggers hired by the political organization to spam positive information about themselves and discredit their enemies, whether real or fake, is the most widely reported way to “game” an “egalitarian” system through sheer quantity. It is also becoming apparent that, while anyone can post messages on social media sites, the corporations that control these websites wield enormous influence over how information is spread. Selling advertising space is becoming an ever more profitable venture for social media companies, and those that can afford to pay are more likely to be heard than those who can´t. Popular fears surrounding the end of the net neutrality laws that forced internet companies to grant their users access to all content show the level of control that corporations can exert on their users, if allowed. Algorithms and “big data” analytics also allow social media corporations such as Facebook, Twitter, and others to isolate groups of individuals who share certain characteristics and identify what types of messages they are susceptible to and directing these groups to other similar information sources. While ostensibly for commercial purposes such as targeted advertising, they are also found to contribute to political polarization by aiding the formation of information “echo chambers” where people only expose themselves to information they already want to hear to reaffirm their existing beliefs. Polarization prolongs the lifespan of rumours and make debunking more difficult, and reasonable public debate that liberal democracy relies on impossible. Suggestions on how to combat the spread of falsehoods and “revive” public debate often involve co-opting or forcing the social media giants to police themselves. This means to cooperate with the spreading of the liberal democracy narrative, and through various means to marginalize the populist and extremists groups and censor propaganda from foreign governments. Such new laws signal that the internet and social media are far from non-policeable and inherently democratic, as many originally claimed.

Given its track record, the new digital social media is increasingly appearing as a politically neutral tool or sharing more similarities with the old “traditional” media than many had believed. Many new laws being introduced following 2016 are forcing Social media to conform to many of the rules that “traditional” media have had to face, such as disclosing data and various forms of censorship to influence the type of content that users see. Some suggestions are more innovative, such as implementing new algorithms to direct users to view information coming from the opposite end of the political spectrum that they are used to seeing, instead of more of the same. These new regulations also reflect many of the regulations that governed more traditional forms of media and may signal the subservience of the digital moguls submitting to the objectives of the nation-state; as newspapers, radio, and television companies have done before. With the recent events, it should be time for the Internet’s advocates to admit that the digital age will not be a golden age of liberal democracy where the peoples of the world, inspired by the horizontal partnership and imbued with liberal democratic values thanks to social media, throw off the shackles of authoritarianism. Instead, the Internet and social media, by giving a “voice to the voiceless,” has empowered radical groups of all stripes and are just as susceptible to the lure of profits and secrecy.

Hanyu Huang