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Facebook’s effects on democratic action

Many politicians, action groups and activists use Facebook to mobilize supporters for a particular political cause. But is Facebook the ideal platform for public political debate? Far from it, I say. Instead, Facebook transforms politics into a popularity contest. The results of popularity politics are the tranquilization of true democratic action and the development of irrational political extremism. These are the findings of my master thesis supervised by Mads Vestergaard and defended at Copenhagen Business School in October 2016.

The perspective I chose to analyse ”Facebook as a public sphere” from is by looking at the power relations involved in political opinion making online. Power can be exercised in a strategic or in a communicative way. Strategic action involves an actor X convincing another Y to do something that follows X’s personal interests, while using Y’s fears and motivations. Communicative action means Y acting based on mutual understanding of the value this action goals have, without strategic persuasion involved. Michel Foucault (The Subject and Power, 1982) thinks all power is exercised in a strategic way, independent of consent and caging the individual’s identity. On the other hand, Hannah Arendt (Crises of the Republic, 1972) thinks power has a communicative character, being the capacity to act together for a political purpose, result of consent and being a tool for liberation.

I took these thoughts on the dual nature of power and applied them on the Facebook environment. Different voices acknowledge the benefits Facebook brought to social movements, while many think Facebook did more harm than good to democratic action. Therefore the question arises: Is power exercised in a strategic way (Foucault) or in a communicative manner (Arendt) on Facebook?

I split my big topic into two parts. First, I looked at what type of power relations made it possible for Facebook to be used as a public sphere. Secondly, I layed out the characteristics of this new pseudo – public sphere. The answers to these two questions helped me get a grasp of how political debates look like on Facebook and therefore assess Facebook’s effects on democratic action.

1. What type of power exercise turned Facebook into a “public sphere”?

In order to find out whether it was strategic or communicative use of power, I looked at consent and effect on users’ identity creation. These two characteristics are where Arendt’s and Foucault’s theoretization of the power-subject relationship splits. The conclusion I reached is that the strategic use of social power on Facebook meant creating meaning for increased user engagement. Even though this engagement turned a data-driven platform into world’s biggest social and political platform for discussion, Facebook did not care about users’ consent and promoted superficial criteria in forming political identities.

In fact, in early stages Facebook did not ask for users’ consent when it conducted emotional manipulation studies, political engagement studies, when it introduced the Beacon algorithm, or the Newsfeed. In present, even though Facebook acknowledges consent’s importance, it still disregards users choice. An example in this respect is the tracking of users who explicitly opted-out from tracking, are logged off Facebook or are not even part of the platform – all tracked. One of the purposes consent is almost ignored is virality. The more a post gets shared, clicks or commented on… the more data it produces. And data is good for business. But content has to be meaningful in order to become viral. Orchestrating meaning for users is a great way to blind them from the importance of consent. Instances of Facebook creating meaning are offering answers to what’s cool or not, what news are trending these days, or.. what ‘privacy’ means (and therefore, notions of ‘sharing’).

The subjectification of users means affecting their identity. By inscribing meaning into users, clicks become equal to political action. Morozov pointed at the superficiality of ‘clicktivism’ in his book “To Save Everything, Click Here“. Driven by the online alternative of activism, political extremism flourishes with algorithms creating opinion bubbles (Hendricks and Hansen, 2016). If you’re a leftie, you’ll see leftie news, because you are more likely to engage and produce data. Therefore Facebook serves users what they want to read. For example, Wall Street Journal explained this polarization by showing how the Facebook Newsfeed looked like for Democrats vs how it looked like for Conservatives during American Presidential Election. On top of political extremism, some online users choose to rather disengage and not participate at all in online debates, they censor themselves in what is coined as a spiral of silence.

Therefore, disregarding consent to enter a power relation and caging individuals’ identity formation are indicatives that point at Foucault’s reading of power. Therefore Facebook emerged into a supposed public sphere of debate through a strategic use of (social) power.

2. What is this pseudo – public sphere called Facebook?

After I elucidated which power constitutes the main threat against democracy when debating on Facebook, I painted the resulting debate environment.  In order to characterize this supposed public sphere I looked at neutrality, rationality, plurality and consensus. I found that Facebook is by no means a neutral terrain. Instead, it is an actor that gives those who pay the opportunity of being seen/heard. “Political advertisers” aim a different message at different users according to the information advertisers have about users’ feelings and attitudes towards the message’s topic. An example of such irrational debate are the psychometrics used in the American presidential elections. Having access to such description of what the audience likes, thinks, feels, makes it easy to orchestrate consensus. Therefore, Facebook users agree with what only seems logic to them, without knowing that the message was crafted according to what the sender knows about their logic. Finally, plurality of perspectives does not exist in the Facebook online political debate simply because Facebook algorithms aim at getting like-minded people together. Political dissent is therefore removed before or as soon as it appears in conversation.

Way to go, Facebook, make debates great again!

Virality is the main purpose of the Facebook political debate. It is not rationality, validity, neutrality or relevance of arguments that which counts. There are two ways in which one can take the puppeteer position in a Facebook political debate. First is economical power – paying money for targeted ads. Second is social power – surrendering one’s social privacy to the masses and performing for them. If one is not willing to do any of the above, their voice will not be heard.

Moreover, the way algorithms work on Facebook affects the political identity of users. It is no secret that the number of political extremists has exploded over the past years. For many online activists, both of left and right, political views are means of showing a superficial support in order to be in trend with what political correctness means for the audience they perform for. Encouraged by online popularity, such poor souls might even take the streets. Protests become pop culture. Moreover, the self-censorship of those who can not or choose not to handle trolls or fear government surveillance on social media has effects in their offline political activism too. Spirals of silence happen not only in the digital world, but they discourage those for who politics are more than just a cool thing to share on their Timeline.

What now?

For Professor Amy Allen power is not strategic OR communicative. Instead it is strategic AND communicative, therefore the two views  complement each other, being different sides of the same coin. She states that in order to understand how to nourish the communicative aspect of power in an environment, one has to understand the foucaldian genealogy of the environment – how did strategic action enabled the environment to come to life? In other words, to understand how to encourage democratic action (communicative use)  requires understanding what is impeding it (strategic use). So far, I have presented the findings of my thesis in respect to what pollutes democratic action on Facebook.

When political discussion happens on Facebook it is the strategic use of social power that impedes democratic action. Virality as the one criteria of debate enhances, both online and offline,  either political polarization of opinions, either the silencing of those in minority.  In this manner, democratic action becomes irrational extremist one or disappears completely in its true form. In order to stop platforms like Facebook deteriorate to such extents democracy, several measures have to be taken. In my next blog post I will discuss the solutions I came up with as result of my analysis.


Notable references:

  • Allen, A., (2002) Power, Subjectivity, and Agency: Between Arendt and Foucault, International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 10 (2) , 131-149
  • Flynn, J., (2004), Communicative Power in Habermas’s Theory of Democracy, European Journal of Political Theory, 3(4) 433 – 454
  • Habermas, J., (1984), The Theory of Communicative Action. Vol. I: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, T. McCarthy (trans.). Boston: Beacon. [German, 1981, vol. 1]
  • Hendricks, V.F., Hansen,P.G., (2016), Infostorms. Why do we “like”? Explaining individual behaviour on the social net, 2nd edition – Revised and Expanded, Copernicus Books / Springer Nature, New York, Pre-print
  • Poell T., van Dijck, J., (2016), Constructing Public Space : Global Perspectives on Social Media and Popular Contestation, International Journal of Communication Vol10, 226 – 234


Read my full thesis here.