As students who have lived in Pakistan, Ecuador, Japan and the United States, our participation in the Athens Democracy Forum highlighted the differences in the ways we interact with our democracies. Despite our geographic diversity, however, while preparing for the Forum we realized that the importance of our interactions with social media and engagement in democracy were a common thread between us.
From the perspective of Sarmad Iqbal, a university student in Lahore, Pakistan, social media has become an important and indispensable part of politics these days. Even though the extent of its influence may vary, it is certainly relevant to discussions on democracy today. Throughout the three days of ADF 2020, speakers emphasized the question of social media as a complement to democracy and not as a threat. A young Pakistani social media user, Sarmad does see it as a tool to express his opinion out loud over national matters that interest him. Unfortunately, he says that he retains a certain degree of caution and inhibition in how he voices his opinion on these platforms – a large army of trolls exists in the country which will recklessly target anyone it deems unsupportive of its ideology.
Intimidation harms the chances Sarmad has of freely expressing himself. In this sense, social media is used by political parties to polarize society. Rival political parties will resort to using hashtag trends against each other, paired with vile language and defamatory content. Nevertheless, social media has also been a force for good in his country: It is perceived as being responsible for a record increase in voter turnout during the 2013 and 2018 general elections there and facilitates youth engagement in politics.
Another recurring theme during the Forum was the issue of privacy. Adrian Vásconez, a student from Quito, Ecuador, thinks that currently the question of government regulation often assumes the “publicness” of online information. Users have become so used to the idea of their information being “in the cloud” that they no longer think it is weird to have their personal profiles accessible to the entire world. What once was limited to content creators and organizations now has extended to the general population. Discussions about regulation in the Forum drifted more towards applicability and justification of measures than toward access to information.
As an 18-year-old Ecuadorian, Adrian grew up online and knows that his adolescence is recorded somewhere on servers in a foreign country, accessible to all. He claims his perspective is not as grim as that of Yuval Noah Harari with regard to a possible shift in the near future of governments’ control over the population through social media. However, Adrian believes we are far beyond the point of no return when it comes to control over our personal data. After all, his generation and the next ones will be those experiencing the full effects of the complete availability of their information.
For him, this highlights the importance of being involved in democracy and governance. He believes that we are responsible for making sure that the internet of the future does not become the nightmare some people fear it will, and that the governments of the future respect that. His generation will have to find the balance between surveillance, freedom of speech and regulations.
Jasmine Momoko, who grew up between the United States and Japan, says that social media has been essential to how she stays connected with the two sides of her family. Just as for Sarmad and Adrian, social media has been foundational to her adolescence. While Jasmine was living abroad in France, technology allowed her to immerse herself in democracy and digital activism both in the United States and Japan. In the US, the fight for racial justice galvanized young people to get involved in direct democracy, organizing protests and registering to vote with unprecedented energy. Meanwhile, in Japan, activists have worked to bring Black Lives Matter to the attention of Japanese society, and social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter have become tools for starting discussions on racism and women’s reproductive rights.
Alongside this involvement, Jasmine agrees that her generation has sacrificed privacy as its members work to democratize the media. Moreover, if people’s feeds become echo chambers that constrict wider public discourse, Jasmine fears our democracies will be threatened as ideological divisions expand. Social media has redistributed power to marginalized voices, but to maintain this, Jasmine asserts that governments must put in place legislation that requires tech companies to consider the ethics of their algorithms. People can no longer put their trust in private corporations that gain huge profits from creating algorithms designed to keep them online.
Social media has been an impactful force in our interactions with the world today. It is not surprising to realize the extent of its influence in our understanding of democracy and modern political engagement, especially for youth.
Sarmad Iqbal (Forman Christian College University, Lahore, Pakistan), Jasmine Momoko Cowen (The American University of Paris, France) & Adrian Vásconez (San Francisco de Quito University, Quito, Ecuador)