Does Social Media Make Our Democracy More Democratic?

Political commentators have been quick to write about the role of social media in the debt ceiling crisis in recent days. Members of Congress and President Obama were very active on both Facebook and Twitter in the days leading up to the August 2 deadline, stating their own positions clearly to their followers and hoping that their postings would lead to an upwelling of public support.
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One of Speaker Boehner’s Facebook posts garnered more than 15,000 comments. President Obama, meanwhile, lost more than 40,000 Twitter followers after sending out tweet upon tweet urging followers to contact their Republican representatives or senators who were using Twitter to stake out their own positions. But despite being called “Spammer-in-Chief” as a result of the Twitter onslaught, it seems to have been effective: Republicans’ social media accounts were inundated with calls for a compromise.

Politicians from both sides of the aisle seem to have embraced social media because it allows them to communicate directly with large numbers of their constituents without having their messages filtered through the media, which often imparts its own spin to politicians’ statements. And given social media’s ability to help people engage with others, it lends a certain air of authenticity to a group of people (politicians) that are usually viewed with a great deal of skepticism by the general public.

Still, the question remains: did social media play a major role in resolving the debt ceiling crisis? It may have helped steer some Republicans to accept a compromise. But on the whole, its effects were probably minor. The general consensus is that those who engage with politicians are already very partisan in nature, and not likely to be swayed one way or the other.

The end result, then, may have been the opposite of what the politicians who took to social media in the first place intended. Rather than influence public opinion in favor of their positions, they may have instead wound up adjusting their positions because of the feedback they received.

This leads to an interesting question. In an age where corporate and lobbyist influence has come to dominate the political process, does social media function as a way to magnify the voice of the common person? Can social media make our democracy more democratic? Or is it just another way to distract us? Let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment!