EN: Social Media and Democracy: How Social Media Contribute to Democracy

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EN: Social Media and Democracy: How Social Media Contribute to Democracy


Social Media and Democracy: How Social Media Contribute to Democracy

Lee Seong-gyu, Researcher, Maeil Economy Mobile Department


On November 3, 2008, America gave birth to the first "Social Media President." Although many adjectives are attached to the name Obama, none can reveal the person as well as the expression "social media." According to research by the Web technology blog RWW (ReadWriteWeb), since the start of the election campaign at the end of August 2008, blog postings mentioning Obama reached a whopping 500 million. In contrast, McCain was mentioned only 150 million times. With Twitter, the situation was similar. Until the presidential election, Obama's Twitter had as many as 130,000 netizens signing up as his friend, and with as many in number, he became a friend online.

On Obama's Facebook page, 3 million registered as friends, while 840,000 did so in his MySpace page. Particularly in MySpace, over 10,000 netizens registered as Obama's friends on the day of the presidential election, November 2, and on the next day, displaying explosive dynamism.

Chosen by social media, Obama was able to build a wide network of "grassroots supporters" based on them. Social media served as the bullhorn of Obama, and through them, he was able to expand his support group to another level. For Obama who suffered from a poverty of offline human network, the online human network filled its place. The election of Obama is a model case that allows us to infer about the ways in which social media contributed to democracy. By utilizing social media, such as blogs and Twitter, the Obama camp directly mediated and disseminated their policy and political opinion, and thereby created a critical opportunity to boost the offline voter turnout.

Such media utilization by Obama led to the increase in voter turnout which reached 63%, the highest rate since 1960. In bringing out particularly the young people, the main users of social media, to the polling places, Obama's social media utilization is evaluated as having contributed to getting this group that had been in the margins of politics back in the center of politics.

The Ways in Which Social Media Contribute to Democracy

In order to prove the proposition that the evolution of media contributes to democracy, we need to do a stricter preparatory work prior to moving on to the proposition. Robert Dahl, the great scholar of democracy, asserts there are at least six criteria required to achieve ideal democracy: 1) effective participation, 2) voting equality, 3) attainment of enlightened understanding, 4) control of the agenda, 5) inclusiveness, and 6) basic human rights. The higher the level at which these six criteria are achieved, a society will come closer to the ideal form of democracy.

The old media have been involved, among these, in the "attainment of enlightened understanding." The attainment of enlightened understanding means that within an appropriate time period, each group member must have an equal and effective opportunity to understand the relevant alternative policies and their various consequences. The old media, including newspapers and broadcasting, played the role of a watchdog that provides accurate and trustworthy information to the citizens and monitors and criticizes the government. 

For that reason, the old media have been considered the guard of modern democracy. By presenting diverse viewpoints and perspectives so that the citizens do not become buried in the propaganda of the bureaucracy and those in power, the old media have functioned as an important source of alternative information. In providing a forum for public opinion where full consideration can be given to issues free from biased interests, they have taken their place as an intermediary essential to advancing another step toward ideal democracy.

The old media, however, are eating away their own trust from the overconfidence in their power to shape public opinion, based on greed and commercial interests. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the emergence and proliferation of social media grew out of the "crisis of trust" in the old media. Social media blossomed as a flower known as "effective participation" from the seed planted in the crack of this "crisis" and presented an alternative for contributing to democracy. By igniting the active media utilization by citizens, social media contribute to increasing the "effective participation," the minimum condition for ideal democracy. This frame of view is quite persuasive in understanding the spread of candle light demonstrations and the increased turnout of voters in their 20s and 30s during the June 2 local elections.

The Media's Function as Seen from the Perspective of "Participatory Democracy"

According to Civil Participation and Democracy, the concept of participatory democracy inherited from Thomas Jefferson, Mills and Weber is one model of democracy born as a supplementary and critical theme for representative democracy. Rather than criticizing the public for being unable to control political parties or politicians through elections, it holds the view that problems arise primarily from the non-participation of the citizens in the political process.

Mills, in particular, criticized the function of the mass media of his times by asserting that the media are eliminating the citizens' political role of deciding major issues through face-to-face meetings and conversations in the public domain of the local community, such as the electoral district.

To summarize the theory presented by researchers of participatory democracy, real democracy can be actualized when the mediate function of the existing media is eliminated and the citizens participate in the public debate process directly through the media. The optimal online tool for this mode of communication is the social media. 

Social Media is the Learning Place of Democracy

The democracy learning taking place in social media is expected to act as a power transforming the offline world. The "offline Korea" is controlled and oppressed by various government organizations, but the "online Korea" is now the learning place and the liberation zone of democracy. In this online world, the citizens learn democracy as well as collect and share information that seep out of the cracks on the senselessness of their representatives in the government organizations.

We are witnessing collective intelligence being conceived online, owed particularly to the characteristics peculiar to the online world, such as hippie-like culture of resistance, speed of network expansion, post-industrial ideology and anti-authoritarian horizontalism. The democratic attitude and awareness learned this way are predicted to undergo a qualitative transformation into the energy of democratic aspirations in the offline world. Their true value will be shown particularly in election times when sharp policy issues crash head to head. We are well aware of the fact that the rapid growth of social media, such as OhmyNews and Twitter, usually go together with the holding of elections and occurrences of disasters and catastrophes.


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