For some time, social media was used for interacting with those who would not normally be available to us, which allowed for the spread of knowledge and more transparency in the political world. For a while, this removed the power structures from online interactions and allowed everyone to have an equally important voice (Suler, 2004). Though social media platforms claim that they remain democratic, there is substantial evidence that these platforms can be used and manipulated in a way that does not promote democracy, but rather uses the accessibility of the online world to promote authoritarian ideologies. Instagram in particular has become a good place for users to speak their minds, especially given that the amount of Instagram users has nearly doubled in recent years, from 428 million in 2016 to 800 million in 2019 (Sevastopulo, 2019). While this seems to be the case in many social media platforms, Instagram’s rising popularity gives way to the spreading falsified information that contributes to the reduction of democracy in social media.
Like other social media platforms, Instagram was designed with features that are meant to make it a democratic platform. For one, most content can be accessed without “following” a particular person or organization, meaning that users may access information on a topic without subscribing to the information provider. Users are permitted to comment on posts, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with the original message. Furthermore, Instagram allows for more information to be provided in a single post than other social media platforms: the character count is significantly longer than that of Twitter, and more information can be conveyed with visual aspects in a post. The result is that users can clearly communicate their thoughts through multiple channels within Instagram, offering a substantial amount of freedom with what users produce.
Despite the above-mentioned qualities, there are Instagram characteristics that have consequences for the democracy that social media claims to provide. Instagram enables selective exposure, meaning that users can easily access information that confirms their own beliefs without necessarily coming across content that challenges those beliefs (Roman, 2020, p. 1). For instance, users are more inclined to follow political candidates with whom they share common values than political candidates with whom they disagree on key issues (Roman, 2020, p. 8). On Instagram, content is recommended to users based on posts they have “liked”, contributing to a continuous stream of repetitive content. To avoid any challenge to their beliefs, some users may even utilize selective avoidance, a technique for avoiding opinions that challenge one’s own beliefs (Roman, 2020, p. 1). So, Instagram algorithms enable issues of selective exposure and selective avoidance, which is undemocratic in that users are overexposed to certain content and underexposed to other content.
Groups such as political parties and organizations may use social media for symbolic and presentational reasons (Nic DePaula, 2018, p. 99). The definition of “information” within the context of social media is unclear, leaving room for these purely symbolic presentations of information that may be better described as propaganda than truth. Furthermore, the fact that that anyone can make claims about anything, regardless of the legitimacy of these claims, contributes to the spreading of “fake news”. Instagram does not have a fact-checking team (Sevastopulo, 2019), meaning that there is no monitoring of false information on behalf of the platform. Plus, people who are contributing to false news on Instagram can be more difficult to track due to a lack of personal information required on a profile. This gave way to a surge of fake accounts that can be cheaply purchased to boost engagement on Instagram. These false accounts are used to spread even more misinformation about the number of supporters a person has, in addition to any more false news being produced by the fake accounts (Sevastopulo, 2019).
A key issue with social media is that it is much easier to spread misinformation than it is to correct it, which results in widespread confusion and disputes over the truth (Beauchamp, 2019). Once the information is public, there is no going back, and a lie is more likely to become widespread than a follow-up critique. This idea is especially prominent when examining the social media surrounding current U.S. politics because the far-right utilizes the spread of misinformation to their advantage. While mainstream media has caught Donald Trump in lies countless times, his supporters spread his lies and even fabricate false evidence to cement the idea in others that Trump’s word is truth. Social media platforms in and of themselves naturally aid the far-right. The far-right aim to undermine trust in established institutions, which then helps the far right gain public favour while mainstream groups (Beauchamp, 2019). When there is so much misinformation spread, the confusion leads people not to trust democratic institutions, which then displaces that trust in a way that benefits authoritarian groups (though they are the ones most responsible for the false news in the first place.) The spreading of false news therefore disproportionately benefits more conservative groups, which further reduces the vision of democracy on social media.
In sum, Instagram and other social media platforms are becoming less democratic as time goes on. Despite the original intents and purposes of social media, the platforms themselves enable ignorance, anonymous deviance, and the falsification of information. This has had an enormous influence of politics, particularly in the U.S., and will continue to have this negative effect on democracy as long as platform creators continue to allow undemocratic behaviour to take place.
Beauchamp, Z. (2019, January 22). Social media is rotting democracy from within: How social platforms enable far-right politicians’ campaigns to undermine democracy. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/1/22/18177076/social-media-facebook-far-right-authoritarian-populism
Nic DePaula, E. D. (2018). Toward a typology of government social media communication: Democraticgoals, symbolic acts and self-presentation. Government Information Quarterly, 35, 98-108. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.giq.2017.10.003
Roman, J. H. (2020, September). Insta-echoes: Selective exposure and selective avoidance on Instagram. Telematics and Informatics, 52, 1-10. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tele.2020.101432
Sevastopulo, H. M. (2019, February 21). Why US politicians are turning to Instagram ahead of 2020 election. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/737d2428-2fdf-11e9-ba00-0251022932c8
Suler, J. (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect. Cyberpsychology & behaviour, 7(3), 321-326. Retrieved from http://truecenterpublishing.com/psycyber/disinhibit.html