Is digital media democratizing society?

Technology and digital media are inseparable part of contemporary society. Most of the activities in industrialized countries today are digitalized or implemented through technology or a computer. Some see this as a simplification of work, but others criticize the uncertainties and challenges that technology and digital media might bring. A controversial digital phenomenon is the so called digital participatory culture.

Digital media enables mediaconsumers to play an active role in new media. The freedom and opportunity to express themselves, to voice their thoughts, and contribute to the creation of digital content is considered by many a way to democratization and creation of an active civil society. Some believe that digital media was the needed element that would enable offline processes that were already happening in society. The invention of such technology would be seen as a symptom of other changes and social processes, such as the need for more active civil participation. Digital media enables social activities that would otherwise be difficult without the help of digital media, for example, the involvement of individuals in the decision-making process and in the production of knowledge and information, the expression of one’s political standpoint, and also the opportunity to fight for change of the social and political order.

The growth and existence of digital  participatory culture is not only a consequence of technical development but of different historical, political, and cultural aspects, and especially freedom. From a historical perspective, political freedom is a relatively new phenomenon in many countries, while being still problematic in some countries even today. The perception that the individual and every citizen is a free human, with rights, with his/her own will, ideas, thoughts, and thus right to claim something or fight for something, is to a large extent a new social and political achievement. Therefore, participatory culture and digital participatory culture is a phenomenon that is more common in a context where freedom is not problematic, where freedom of expression is not limited, and where individuals who dare to “participate” and express themselves are not persecuted.

Photo by: Lilly Rum

Digital media is not just a consequence of increased freedom in society, but it actively participates in the creation of freedom. Media expert Henry Jenkins is one of the digital optimists who believes the pros overcome the cons when it comes to the democratising potential of digital media. Jenkins uses the concept of convergence to explain the merging of different medias into one. This is not only a technological process, but a cultural phenomenon – a grassroots convergence, encouraging media consumers to produce content (participate) and have an active, instead of passive, role. This is why technology and internet provide power to media users to actively engage and even challenge political power.

Digital media and participatory culture help citizens express themselves and reach other media consumers with similar interests, and enables them to create communities together. Old media like TV, newspapers, or radio do not give the opportunity to participate to such an extent. It is primarily through digital media where users can participate. From this perspective, participant culture is a phenomenon that has revolutionary potential and can lead to democratization.

At the same time, it is disputable whether participatory culture really contributes to democratization. The digital and participation gap shows the risk that not everyone will be able to access internet, a computer, or a smartphone, or that not everyone will catch up with digital media and technology’s rapid development. According to another media expert Christian Fuchs, digital and social media allows the participation of only a small section of society, and what is considered to be participation is actually the exploitation of a user’s digital work. Internet culture is part of political economy and large companies play an important part. Fuchs sees participatory culture as community engagement where media users with negative goals can also participate. Some media users make use of the freedom, that digital media gives, to express themselves in a harming to others way. The spread of misinformation (so called fake news) and the manipulation of public opinion can result in social and political polarisation and even the growth of radical groups and hatred. As such, digital media can also have negative implications for democracy.

Technology is something that has always created anxiety in society about each major invention, making us constantly anticipating and wondering about the potential of it. Some hold a more utopian view about the opportunities to contribute to democracy and to positive development, but others are sceptical, and worry about potential negative consequences. According to sociologist Stanley Cohen, there has been such “moral panic” in each historical period, and nowadays it is the influence of the internet and digital media that worries us. Some consider participatory culture as something that can contribute to democracy and to media users’ freedom to express their views and stand for their rights, but others consider this an opportunity for individuals with negative purposes to manipulate information flow and public opinion. In the end, it is all a matter of people’s behaviour in general (i.e. offline). Internet and social media give a lot of opportunities, but at the same time digital media represents what is already in our offline society, both positive and negative. We integrate our (offline) habits and prejudices to the online world, and we transform internet. Digital media can contribute to positive development, but it should start with the people sitting behind the screen.


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