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February 4, 2023

Experts discuss intersection of social media and democracy

By SIRI TUMMALA | April 25, 2019


The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Hopkins hosted the first event of its Democracy Dialogues speaker series on Thursday, April 18. The discussion centered on the interplay of technology and democracy.

Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, and Alec Ross, the former Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, spoke at the event. The discussion was moderated by Adam Sheingate, a Hopkins professor of political science. 

University President Ronald J. Daniels was scheduled to moderate the discussion, but Sheingate, who was involved in some of the initial planning for the event, was asked to fill in for Daniels a day before the discussion. 

“I was just asked yesterday because I was told that the president was asked to travel out of town, so they asked if I could do it,” Sheingate said in an interview with The News-Letter.

Multiple members from Students Against Private Police (SAPP) protested the University’s plans for a private police force during the question and answer portion of the event.

Sheingate started the session by posing several questions to the panelists.

“Can we expect Facebook, or tech platforms more generally, to serve gatekeeping functions in a democracy?” he said.

Gatekeeping refers to the process by which certain news items are prioritized by major news sources, and others are left outside the “gate.“ Social media networks have an increasingly important role in this process, some have argued, as traditional news gatekeeping is subverted by shared social content.

Tufekci contrasted her personal experience of growing up under the gatekeeping of military-controlled Turkey with more traditional gatekeeping in America. She noted that the switch to social media gatekeeping was liberating since it came at a time when trust in traditional gatekeepers was lost.

She referenced the Ferguson protests to explain controversies within Facebook’s algorithm. The algorithm promoted the Ice Bucket Challenge over the protests because the challenge was more Facebook-friendly for likes.

“The new gatekeepers can smother things. If it had just been a Facebook-only world, maybe that movement would have never attracted the attention it did,” Tufekci said.

Sheingate asked about these new technological changes and whether they demand a different public, individual or private response.

Ross explained that technology has made spreading messages more efficient. Movements can now reach a wide audience despite finite resources.

“Instead of something being produced once and handed out in a broadcast network, your ability varies with finite resources to create something mass,” he said. “The ability to actually architect this with a relatively small amount of resources is very specific to this movement.”

Toward the end of the event, Sheingate opened up the floor for audience members to ask questions.

Anthropology graduate student and Garland protester, Mariam Banahi, stated her dissatisfaction with the University’s refusal to follow what she argued should have been a more democratic process in their pursuit of a police force. 

“The subversion of democracy is extremely alarming at this institution we work in, live around and participate in,” she said. “Neither the president nor the administration has responded to the students and has not responded to the Homewood faculty. This is a dangerous trend that I think we need to step up.”

Members of SAPP protested the event by chanting “No Justice. No Peace. No Private Police.”

Tufekci responded to the protest by describing the 2018 protest against and fall of Silent Sam, a Confederate statue on the University North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. 

She referred to her book and encouraged them to continue speaking out.

“I would urge that faculty, students and the community speak out against whatever they want to speak out against and that they are not punished for their concerns. My whole book is about how you bring about change; this is what I thought about my whole life. You organize the people and the community,” she said.

At the end of the event, one of the protester’s microphones was muted after they started chanting, and the protesters were then escorted out of the venue by security officers.

Junior Sara Nutter found the event to be very informative in terms of the effects of social media on democracy.

“I liked that [Ross] thought there are more optimistic views of using media and democracy today because I think the discourse tends to be rather negative toward social media platforms and bolstering democracy across the globe,” she said.

Sheingate, in an interview with The News-Letter, commented that he felt protest was indicative of a healthy democratic space for students to discuss campus events.

“I understand they raised some important and difficult questions, and that’s the nature of democracy. It’s going to be hard sometimes, uncomfortable and difficult, and we want to make sure that we nurture those spaces and opportunities,” he said.

Junior Amelia Breen, however, found the protest to be disruptive and unproductive.

“The protest was ill-timed and not conducive to the discussion at hand. I think it was for shock value, and I do not think they achieved any ends,” Breen said.

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