Does social media help citizens participate in democracy?

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 1277


Since the inception of the internet, individuals have been able to connect with friends and family as well as stay up-to-date with news and information. According to Sey & Castells (2004) the internet has become the ultimate tool of technology and freedom and be hailed by many as the potential saviour for representation and participation within society. Barber (1984) identified that there was a possibility for the use of technology to promote new communication and information which would give individuals the capacity to participate in politics and society. There had been a significant deterioration in the quality of the process of public debate which had impacted on the process of democratic decision making which was evident in the public sphere.

Social Media in the Public Sphere

According to Castells (2001, 2011, 2012 and 2013) social media has become a tool for the construction of a communicative autonomy from the structures of power, social media has created and occupied spaces and promoted the communication of emotions of both hope and outrage. Social media has been key to the emergence of a collective action – Occupy Wall Street, #Metoo, etc. This has allowed social movements to have a presence both on-and-offline which has been significant to the development of the movements. Social media has become a portal for electronic word of mouth (e-WOM), allowing for positive and negative feelings to be shared (Trusov et al, 2009). The internet and social media, according to Castells (2001, 2011, 2012 and 2013) allows the individual to take part in democracy through the medium of social media and individuals can create and distribute their own thoughts and feelings through interpersonal relationships.

Hauser (1998: 86) describes the public sphere as

‘a discursive space in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgement.’

Modern society has created a platform allowing individuals to participate in politics and democracy. Public opinion has begun to form on social media as a communicative method which can exist beside public authority. Habermas (1962) suggested that the public sphere was a forum for public debate and that there was a requirement for open arenas of public debate within society. There are certain conditions contained within the public sphere, according to Habermas (1962) – for the formation of public opinion, accessibility for all, presented in an unrestricted manner and in order to govern relations, debate should take place. The simplest and idealistic form of the public sphere is for the free communication of opinion unconstrained by external pressure (Habermas, 1962). Calhoun (1999: 2) states

‘A public sphere adequate to a democratic polity depends upon quality of discourse and quality of participation.’

Habermas (1962) solidifies the position of the public sphere as binding positions within society together (e.g., class directed, connections to activism, etc.) as well as being a product of democracy.

Social Media and Communications

The participatory nature of the internet allows anyone to become an author and there has been advancements in mobile communication allowing for ‘direct citizen-government dialogue’ which further constructs the accountability of elected officials (Murdoch & Golding, 2002). Newsome et al (2009) identify that social media has reduced barriers in the process of communication. While the use of the internet can be seen as extremely useful, not all governments or societies agree and the content of information is often restricted in these countries, so that individuals cannot communicate as freely. Castells (2001) identifies that the participatory nature within society has formulated through the creation and development of social media allowing individuals to unite through the development of debates and connections. Villi & Matikainen (2016) describe the participatory culture of social media as multifaced and that this participation can be explained as explicit or implicit. Villi & Matikainen (2016) state that all participation is not the same and is quite an ambiguous concept which can take on numerous forms, identified by Carpentier (2011) as problematic and often overused and over stretched.

Jenkins (2006) states that participatory culture is not new and shares a background with passive media consumption and spectatorship. Research (Castells, 2001; Dellarocas, 2003; Chaffey et al, 2009) has shown that the internet has developed the concept of communicative enhancement, which is enhancing the human experience, while changing knowledge processes allow for individual freedom to investigate and disseminate information, which the individual can choose for themselves. Sey and Castells (2004) identified evidence that has suggested that while the internet has opened many doors, there is a crisis of legitimacy in the U.S. and Western Europe in the form of governments, parliaments, political parties and politicians. The internet has played a critical role in the changing political processes in campaigns, etc. Information flow is integral to the political process and for politics to have the ability to hold control over communicative and information processes. Curran et al (2012) cites that there is very little censorship of the internet thus there is a freedom for individuals to communicate, discuss their aspirations and understand democratic processes. Curran et al (2012) also note that there are inequalities in different states which can distort online content and discussion.


While the development and changes in communicative practices has put added pressure on society in order for economics and politics to keep in touch with citizens, it is important that there can be contact between the various bodies within society. Individuals have the ability to continually access the information that they want rather than being spoon fed what the elites want them to know. This has put some pressure on political institutions with transparency and accountability, however social media does allow for a more participatory environment and culture. The freedoms which the internet and social media have gained for the individual, including information and discussion has played an important role in the process of the provision of information to the individual. Complex relationships have been created which allow the individual more freedom in who they contact and what debates/ discussions they have which is being facilitated by social media.


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Villi, M., & Matikainen, J., (2016) Participation in Social Media: Studying Explicit and Implicit Forms of Participation in Communicative Social Networks, Media and Communication, Vol. 4, No. 4, pp.  109 – 117

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