According to James Carey, “without journalism there is no democracy, but without democracy there is no journalism either.” In other words, the ability of journalism to inform citizens of a democracy, or the ability of journalism to act as a Fourth Estate, is crucial to the healthy functioning of a truly democratic society. Likewise, only under a truly free democracy does journalism have both the capabilities and freedom to properly pursue its goals of fact-finding and information distribution. For years this has been the relatively stable model of public discourse in mature democracies, such as in the United States of America and European nations like England and France. However, with the rise of social media, this relationship, once thought to be symbiotic, is increasingly under threat. Furthermore, the spread of false information on these platforms further threaten the foundations on which a healthy democracy is built. By analyzing two theories of the press through the lens of social media — the libertarian model and the social responsibility model — it is clear that the functioning of a healthy democratic society is not possible in the current iteration of social media.
Before discussing the impact of social media on democracy, it is important to define the different theories of the press. The libertarian model originally came from the libertarian movement in 16th century Europe. Born from the social consequences of international trade and urbanization, the libertarian model deemed information the most valuable tool to remain free from the yoke of aristocracy. In essence, the libertarian model of the press states that people are rational enough to tell good and true information from bad and false information; thus, it is not the responsibility of the press to gatekeep what information is publicly available, rather they should provide all content, both positive and negative, for public consumption.
In contrast, in the United States’ “Hutchins Commission on a Free and Responsible Press,” the foundations for the social responsibility theory of the press were laid. In summary, the social responsibility theory allows for the freedom of the press and encourages the press to provide an accurate summary of the news, while simultaneously acting as a forum for the exchange of criticism and discussion. The Commission concluded that the media organizations in the United States had a moral responsibility to consider the needs of the citizenry and overall society when contemplating journalistic actions in order to create the greatest good . This theory creates a press environment in which the press and news corps are held responsible and are expected to maintain a high level of professionalism and accuracy in order to foster accurate debates and education.
Pre-social media, it was widely accepted that the United States and most modern democracies had press that functioned according to the social responsibility model. For years, widely-respected institutions such as the New York Times and The Times acted as trusted gatekeepers to inform the public and hold government accountable. If they misstepped, they were held accountable under publishing laws in their respective countries, maintaining the trust the public had in them to provide accurate and truthful information. However, with the rise of social media, the social responsibility model is under threat, as it no longer aligns with the most important model of all: their business model.
The rise of social media and new media aligned with an increased scrutiny on news organizations’ business model and profitability. The emergence of cable and satellite television was the first new medium that threatened the social responsibility model. For cable and satellite television services, the bulk of their revenue was reliant on advertisements. In turn, the amount of advertising revenue and television organization made was reliant on the amount of people watching the program. Thus, these companies turned to sensationalism, or the selection of news that excites the most people and draws the most consumers, rather than other newsworthy topics. This was only further exacerbated by the emergence of the internet and social media companies.
While the rise of television news impacted the businesses of legacy press, the ubiquitous nature of the internet spawned companies that threatened the survival of the press. Furthermore, and more crucial to the question of the coexistence of social media and democratic politics, social media companies also acted very differently from the press companies that modern Western democracies had depended on to act as a Fourth Estate for decades. In essence, social media companies functioned more closely to the libertarian model than the social responsibility model, and its success encouraged (or forced) legacy media to also adapt in order to survive. While not bad in theory, the key assumption to the libertarian theory is that the consumers and general public are rational and can tell good from bad, right from wrong. This has not been the case with social media companies.
There are a combination of factors that contribute to the current state of incompatibility between social media and democracy. The first, and foremost, is the spread of sensational and fake news. The “influence of social platforms shapes the journalism itself;”  by emphasizing the need for clicks and advertising revenue, journalistic entities have been forced to adapt the style of their content. Thus, the medium has changed — long form and written pieces have been replaced with quickly digestible videos and soundbites. This creates the risk of not providing the full context or needed information in a story. Furthermore, the nature of the content has changed. As previously stated above, the need to get as many people as possible to view one’s content has encouraged the press to embrace sensationalism. The consequence of this is that newsworthy stories that significantly impact people may not get the same focus and promotion as a rival piece that is more interesting, yet ultimately trivial. Finally, the spread of fake news hampers formative debates and informed discussions by spreading information that is both false and caters to certain subsets’ beliefs. The source of this false information is twofold: news outlets produce sensationalist content to gain revenue, and evil actors hope to sow discord.
Ultimately, the rise of sensationalism and false news would be negated if the core assumption of the libertarian theory — that people are rational and can tell good from bad and right from wrong — was true. In reality, as seen by the current state of the media landscape and politics, the majority of people have shown limited ability to act rationally. While I do believe that the idealistic notion of social media is beneficial to a functioning democracy, in its current state, I do not believe that social media results in a healthy democracy. Yet I do believe there are steps that can be taken to improve the relationship between the two. First, I believe that social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook should be treated as publishers, not tech platforms. This would make them accountable to the same rules and regulations that traditional press are, and would encourage them to scrutinize the spread of false information on their platforms. However, I understand that this raises the question of free speech, and the fact that, as private companies, they have the ability to censor any content they choose. I do not have a concrete solution to this dilemma, however, I find Onora O’Neill’s and Michael Sandel’s arguments thought-provoking. They state that it is important to draw a distinction between freedom of expression and freedom of communication. According to O’Neill, “the problem of freedom of expression….is that it protects an individual’s right to say whatever they like, but it pays no heed to those on the receiving end” . Similarly, Sandel criticizes those who “place too high a value on free speech, and fail to see the harm that can be done in its name” .
Ultimately, I believe that social media can coexist with, and in fact enhance, democracy. However, in its current state, social media and democracy are incompatible. A first step towards solving the issues plaguing these platforms would be to regulate them as publishers. Hutchins, Robert. Hutchins Commission on a Free and Responsible Press. 1947. https://ia802703.us.archive.org/23/items/freeandresponsib029216mbp/freeandresponsib029216mbp.pdf  Bell, Emilly, and Taylor Owens. “The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley Reengineered Journalism.” Tow Center for Digital Journalism, March 2017, 10.  Street. “Mass Media, Politics and Democracy,” 2011, 309–311.
Thanks for your article Cole! I hadn’t really heard the idea about regulating social media platforms as publishers rather than simply platforms for individuals to post. It makes sense considering the algorithms, the reach that certain posts get, and the power that the platforms have to moderate content. However, I’m wondering what this would look like in reality: what responsibility would the individuals who post have for their content? Would responsibility fall solely on the social media platform to filter and censor content? Can the moderation of content be truly non-partisan? I know that this is a massive debate in Congress right now with policymakers on both sides accusing the same exact companies for partisanship against them in what they choose to censor. How this debate would span out into legislation (or if it would at all) will be very interesting to watch.
Hi Cole! Thank you so much for your blog post. I agree with a lot of the things that Caroline set forth in her comment, and would like to build on that. The idea of social media companies being treated as publishers is a difficult one for me to wrap my head around. Although true that social media companies are able moderate content and regulate what is done on their platforms, contrary to traditional publishers, these companies don’t explicitly espouse views or explicitly hire/select the people that use their platforms to express themselves. I don’t necessarily believe that there should be any further restrictions on online speech, but I do believe that the publishing of misinformation should be monitored and flagged much more heavily than it is today. For the purposes of democracy, I think that regulation of social media should revolve around the awareness and discrediting of misinformation, and less around a limit on speech.