The Internet has grown and evolved exponentially since its creation. Many platforms were created, many lives were changed and many movements were made. Brands are able to advertise even more than they ever could through traditional mediums. In that sense, the Internet is heavily capitalist, as can be seen in Google how they show search results. Many websites choose to pay to be promoted at the top of the search results which would garner more clicks as people are more prone to click the first result. Now how does this relate to democracy? I can confidently say that it the existence of capitalism affects democracy on social media in more avenues than we think.
In the past few days, we can see how Elon Musk illustrates this clearly in his recent policy changes to Twitter since his acquisition. Musk plans on rolling out an update where users can pay a subscription fee of $7.99/month to receive a blue check mark next to their name, indicating that they are verified users. The blue check mark used to be free and was given out based on the verification process that users can apply to receive. Musk claims to deliver “Power to the people!” by charging his users. Twitter Blue allow subscribed users to have “priority in replies, mentions & search, which is essential to defeat spam/scam” (Musk, 2022). The premise of having to pay a subscription to earn the ability to have your voice heard above non-subscribers is a danger to democracy. It is almost akin to the rich and wealthy having a louder voice than the poor, quite the opposite of the phrase “Power to the people!” that Musk wants us to believe.
This is not exclusive to Twitter as many other platforms have a paid subscription model as well that gives similar benefits. YouTubers can opt-in to a membership program that subscribers can choose to pay to gain access to exclusive videos, emotes, and more. Youtube members’ comments are highlighted as well and are distinct from non-members.
Twitter is known to be an outspoken and often polarizing place where opinions are battling against one another. Civil debates exist but the more controversial, uncivil comments about an issue are seemingly more prevalent. Exposure to bad-faith debates or uncivil comments often leads readers to think that there is more outrage and polarization of opinions among the public than the reality is (Hwang et al., 2014).
Civil or uncivil, it is part of democracy for everyone to be heard. However, there is a line to be drawn where you can’t use democracy to justify hate speech or threats to prove a point. Twitter is a private company, thus, they have their own guidelines which underline what is and what isn’t acceptable to post. A public figure such as Alex Jones has made many comments that were outright misinformation that lead to harassment towards victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Twitter eventually remove Jones from their platform for violating their abusive behavior policy (Schneider, 2018). His followers would argue that he was silenced and that this mass ban on his account by many social media is undemocratic.
At what point is it right for someone to not be allowed to participate in a social discussion? I believe that as long as the person’s ideologies do not infringe on other people’s rights or their safety, they are allowed to have a say in discussion forums. People like Andrew Tate and Alex Jones amass huge followers base who practice toxic behavior toward other people. If they are allowed to be outspoken on big platforms, it is a danger not only to democracy but human rights.
Social media such as Twitter can help us have online debates and learn more about opposing ideas. We learn about justice and injustice every single day. But we also have to be cautious in identifying whether what we see and hear is correct information or not.
Anderson, J., Rainie, L. (2020). 3. concerns about democracy in the Digital age, Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/02/21/concerns-about-democracy-in-the-digital-age/#empowering-the-powerful-corporate-and-government-agendas-generally-do-not-serve-democratic-goals-or-achieve-democratic-outcomes-they-serve-the-goals-of-those-in-power
Hwang, H., Kim, Y., & Huh, C. U. (2014). Seeing is believing: Effects of uncivil online debate on political polarization and expectations of deliberation. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 58(4), 621–633. http://doi.org/10.1080/08838151.2014.966365
Musk, E. (2022). Twitter. https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1587498907336118274?s=20&t=XrSTgIArg83A6r2waIAiSQ
Ohnsman, A. (2022). Rupert Murdoch 2.0: How Twitter Gives Elon Musk The Power To Shape Public Opinion. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alanohnsman/2022/11/03/elon-musk-twitter-social-media-baron/?sh=c9fcdd287391
Schneider, A. (2018). Twitter Bans Alex Jones And InfoWars; Cites Abusive Behavior. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2018/09/06/645352618/twitter-bans-alex-jones-and-infowars-cites-abusive-behavior