Let’s say you want to quit social media. Maybe you want your privacy back or you don’t want to stare at screens all the time, or whatever reason it may be. So you decide to delete your accounts, trying to live like in the good old days, where we weren’t controlled by likes and notifications.
This could turn out to be more difficult than you’d expect. Social media use includes all online applications used to consume, create and share content. This typically happens by creating a user profile to enable connections to others via asking you to upload photo, username, etc., or by not asking and simply tracking your devices’ location and input/output. So, social media isn’t only Facebook or Twitter, but includes almost all your apps, online forums and email accounts. If you decide not to participate, you will have trouble having a phone, laptop, email or even work or university access, since most, if not all providers require you to sign up for a social media account. It is possible to do, but quitting social media will be far from easy.
Turning away from social media could also be quite alienating. Not being able to see your friends’ new posts, not being able to create and share your own content or simply not being able to chat regularly with your circle online can make you feel incredibly lonely. Why? One reason is that everyone is participating except you – as of January 2017, Facebook alone had 1871 million active users, and even comparatively small platforms like Snapchat or Skype still count 300 million users. The sheer number of people relying on social media makes it difficult for any outsiders to connect and communicate with others, and that, most likely, includes you, should you not have a social circle following your offline-lead.
As you can see, by quitting social media, you would do something more than just quitting a radio show, turning off the television or unsubscribing to a newspaper. You would lose out on more, cut yourself from a part of our society. Social media is more than a normal medium, and by quitting it, you would severely impede your ability to interact and communicate with other people. Why is that? The reason is that social media platforms are so omnipresent that they now constitute a form of public sphere. By leaving social media, you would leave something that is a sphere of discussion and exchange where society’s decisions and values are based upon. And that is a loss you would feel immediately.
Public Spheres and the Basis of Democracy
The idea of a society having a public sphere can be traced back to ancient Greece. The Greek Agora was an open market space, where the citizens of the state could meet and, while buying and selling things, also discuss, exchange viewpoints and form opinions. In the Agora, the free Greeks could exercise their citizenship by participating in society’s dialogue. Jürgen Habermas describes the Greek ideal of the public sphere as “a realm of freedom and permanence. Only in the light of the public sphere did that which existed become revealed, did everything become visible to all.”
Ancient Greek democracy based its decision-making process on an open exchange between free and equal citizens – without the public sphere, Greek citizens wouldn’t be able to exercise their freedom of choice, and democracy would not flourish in the state.
Imagine you’re a citizen of a Greek city state, who decided not to participate in discussions in the Agora. You avoid this place as much as possible, still turn up for votes, but you leave the Agora immediately after. In contemporary opinion, as long as you turn up to vote, you participate in democracy.
However, from the Greek understanding, democracy is more than a mere aggregation of votes. As Iris Young describes it, there is a second layer of democracy, where the democratic process is understood as a form of practical reason.
On the so-called deliberative model, democracy consists in citizens discussing and arguing about problems and solutions to them – democratic process is primarily understood as public discourse that includes all citizens as free and equal participants in a public inquiry. As a citizen avoiding the Agora, you would also refuse to enter the discourse in the public sphere and thereby exclude yourself from the democratic process.
In ancient Greece, there was a word for someone who did not participate in the Agora: people only concerned with private and not public affairs were called idiōtēs.
The public sphere is the foundation for democratic process. With no open space for fellow citizens to meet, discuss in liberty and propose suggestions for society, democracy in any meaningful sense would cease to exist. In ancient Greece, public space was in the hands of the citizens, used to shape society and discourse in it.
Social Media in the Hands of Citizens
To return to today’s world: quitting social media would of course not be the end of democracy. If you’d quit, there would still be other opportunities for you to engage in the political process, to discuss and share your views with others. That being said, no one could seriously underestimate the power of social media as public spheres at this point.
Twitter accelerated the Occupy-Protests, Facebook algorithms influence and sort out our social circles, and shady political groups may have hijacked Britain’s EU-Referendum and the US-Presidential elections with targeted social media operations. These cases are only the tip of the iceberg, with governments all over the world struggling to uphold or even apply regulatory frameworks that, for example, include privacy rules or copyright laws in the realm of social media.
But social media is not a TV-broadcaster that can simply be embedded into existing regulatory frameworks. Social media is an all-encompassing sphere no one can escape without seriously cutting themselves off from public discourse. Merely applying pre-existing legal frameworks from other media-laws does not suffice, since it results in hopeless attempts of state legislators to understand complicated, fast-changing technologies, and ends in very superficial victories, should the corporations respond at all.
To again underline the importance of today’s public spheres: modern democracies are, no surprise, a bit more complicated than Greek city states. Ancient Greece had a shared understanding of morality as a question of human flourishing and of how to live a good life – the aim of the state was to contribute to this goal and derived its legitimacy from it. In contrast to small Greek democracies, modern liberal democracy lack “the substance of its own truth” that morally guided ancient Greece, and relies solely on an intact public discourse as legitimisation for its institutions. Therefore, so Habermas, when public discourse collapses, so does democratic legitimacy. In modern times, with no universal moral truth at hand, rational public discourse is the only source of legitimisation left for society, and cannot be allowed to unravel.
Let’s put hacker groups aside: In the face of social media being under control of corporations alone, applying algorithms not visible to us so that we only see things in our newsfeed handpicked for us and thereby putting us into different social bubbles where our interactions become limited to very like-minded people, this unravelling of public discourse is, if not reality already, a very real prospect.
The solution is simple. As the Agora was in the hands of the Greek citizens, central social media platforms that are pervasive enough to constitute public sphere should be put under citizens’ control. Facebook, Twitter, and all central social communication hubs that are so essential to our lives that quitting them isn’t an option should be controlled by us and no one else. As we can control and decide over what happens on our streets, libraries, markets, schools and universities, we should be able to control and decide over what happens in our Newsfeeds, which algorithms apply to us and whether and which advertisements reach us. In this way we can make sure that the fabric of society does not unravel, that even its margins stay in contact with each other so that the public sphere remains intact. As part of the democratic public sphere, social media belongs into the hands of citizens.
How to Establish Public Control
Of course, this is easier said than done. Philosophical follies about public spheres are one thing, concrete steps towards governance and regulations quite another. You may be quite reasonably concerned about governments seizing control of Newsfeeds, Chatrooms or private emails. Control and censorship of social media as practised in China and other oppressive regimes certainly aren’t things modern democracies should aspire to do.
However, in the context of modern democracies and open societies, with democratically elected representatives, the rule of law and division of power, the risk of arbitrary abuse of state power should be minimal enough to let the citizens control the public sphere themselves. Sure, social media should not fall into the hand of a totalitarian administration – but a democratically elected parliament, checked by the rule of law, underpinned by an active civic society, should be able to reasonably control social media giants in a much more legitimate way than global corporations would.
Additionally, the risk of power abuse exists already. With Google controlling 90% of search advertising, Facebook owning 80% of social media traffic and Amazon 75% of e-book sales, there is such a strong monopoly in place that it undermines democratic accountability. So the risk of arbitrary power abuse is already here – and in contrast to democratic states, there is no chance of holding global tech corporations democratically accountable. So, establishing democratic control over the public sphere should be increasing and empowering democracy by reducing the risk of power abuse, not leading to totalitarianism.
You might again reasonably object that even in established democratic states like the UK and the US, there already is power abuse in forms of mass surveillance, as the NSA and GCHQ already have access to 85-90% of internet traffic, as Edward Snowden revealed to us. Even if these practices may be democratically legitimised and agreed to by parliament, they still pose an unjustified restriction of citizen’s rights. Giving these states control over social media may make the problem even worse. This is a legitimate worry. However, it should be noted that, again, democratically legitimised and controlled mass surveillance is, as bad as it is, still better than mass surveillance by unchecked global corporations – in the former case, there is at least a possibility of democratically overturning the practice of mass surveillance. And putting social media into the hands of citizens may at least enable a broad public debate about the legitimacy of mass surveillance and whether we should give secret services unrestricted access.
So, how do we start? An obvious practical problem is that we live in a globalised world, where corporations can easily avoid the regulatory power of small single nations. A good starting point could be existing supranational institutions with the regulatory scope social media corporations could not evade that easily: The EU-Commission and EU-Parliament already have a history of tackling social media giants successfully, have enough technical expertise to not be immediately outgunned by the corporations’ programmers and lawyers and oversee all EU and EEA states – a large area of 32 nations that would be hard to avoid even by globally expanded corporations. Similar arrangements could be made for North and South America: Cross-national parliamentary watchdogs could be established to control the spheres of social media.
It would be a long way to go, with no precedents. Historically, public spheres went from public control to being privatised – with social media, something emerged from private property to an essential part of public discourse. But this should be worth it. Social media is too important to be left to corporations alone. We should take control.
Recommended further reading:
Jonathan Taplin: Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. Little, Brown and Company, 2017
Iris Young: “Deliberative Democracy” in Colin Farrelly (ed.): Contemporary Political Theory. Sage Publications, 2004
Jürgen Habermas: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. The MIT Press, 1991
Don Mitchell: “The End of Public Space? People’s Park, Definitions of the Public, and Democracy” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1995
Obar, J.A. and Wildman, S. Social media definition and the governance challenge: An introduction to the special issue. Telecommunications Policy, 2015
Juris, Jeffrey: “Reflections on #Occupy Everywhere” in American Ethnologist, 2012.
Simpson, Thomas: “Conservatives against Surveillance!”, Draft version, 2017
Jennifer Rankin: “Facebook fined £94m for ‘misleading’ EU over WhatsApp takeover” on The Guardian Webpage, 18.5.2017. Accessed: 24.11.2017. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/may/18/facebook-fined-eu-whatsapp-european-commission
Alex Hern: “Facebook to tell users if they interacted with Russia’s ‘troll army’” on The Guardian Webpage, 23.11.2017. Accessed: 24.11.2017. URL:https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/23/facebook-to-tell-users-if-they-interacted-with-russia-troll-army
Robert Allen: “Top Social Network sites by number of active users 2017” on Smart Insights, 23.2.2017. Accessed: 24.11.2017. URL: https://www.smartinsights.com/social-media-marketing/social-media-strategy/new-global-social-media-research/attachment/top-social-network-sites-by-number-of-active-users-2017/
Cadwalladr, Carole: “The Great British Brexit Robbery: How our Democracy was Hijacked”, on The Guardian Webpage, 7.5.2017. Accessed 8.12.2017. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy
Wikipedia entry on “Idiot”, accessed 8.12.2018. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiot
Kolbert, Elizabeth: Who owns the Internet?” on The New Yorker. 28.8.2017, accessed 8.12.2017. URL: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/08/28/who-owns-the-internet?mbid=social_facebook
 Obar/Wildman: 746
 Ibd.: 747
 Mitchell, p.116
 Habermas, p.4
 Young, p.227
 Habermas, p.256-257
 See Simpson, forthcoming.