The Media and Democracy

By Samuel Hoar

The news media plays a fundamental role in a democratic system, acting as a conduit of information  for the people to digest. It must be effective, and it must be trusted. Without a free press that  accurately and informatively helps the people to understand the actions of their democratic  representatives, ‘there is no informed citizen and thus no democracy’ (Krönig, 2004). Focusing on  the media as a news source and with a heavy focus on Western democracies, especially the United  Kingdom and the United States, I will explore some of the ways in which the media is failing to fulfil  its democratic responsibilities. Different politicised news media organisations in these democracies  present contradicting information, and therefore different realities, to distinct sections of the  population. This contributes to socio-political fragmentation and hyperpartisanship. The media does  not always sufficiently resist pressure from corporate or governmental interests and has a small  number of immensely rich and influential owners that control the information that is disseminated  to the public. Social media is utilised to undermine democracy by manipulating the public mind and  influencing elections. The media must remain an ally of democracy, but these issues are creating an environment in which the media hinders rather than supports democracy.  

The Positive Relationship between Media and Democracy 

The media plays a critical role in the democratic process. If the people are to be able to govern  themselves, it is imperative that they are well-informed. Citizens therefore look to the media for  help in evaluating policy, programmes, and assessing the performance of politicians (Mervin, 1998,  p. 6). As Robert McChesney (Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at  the University of Illinois) explains, ‘self-government is impossible without a viable press…this is a  foundation of democratic theory’ (Boler, 2008, p. 21). The maintenance of a credible and  uncensored media is necessary to enable the existence of a free and self-governing society; it is a  democratic right that the people know what is being done by their democratic representatives in  their name (McChesney, 2015, p. 38). These principles are clearly established in the US, where the  Freedom of Information Act (1964) and the Pentagon Papers Supreme Court case enshrine the  democratic power of the press (Mervin, 1998, p. 14.). The Freedom of Information Act has enabled  journalists (and others) access to governmental information, and the Pentagon Papers Case  articulated the right of the people to be informed of the government’s decisions, whether the  government likes it or not (Ibid.). Justice Potter Stewart wrote for the majority in this case: ‘the only  effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and  international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry—in an informed and critical public opinion  which alone can protect the values of democratic government’ (Boler, 2008, p. 172). This sentiment  was echoed in 2006, as the New York Times led an exposition of the US Treasury Department’s plans  to use administrative subpoenas to search for bank transactions of known terrorists (Ibid., p. 171).  Responding to scathing criticism from President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney,  the New York Times’ editor Bill Keller provided a fierce defence of the news media’s democratic role: 

‘It’s an unusual and powerful thing, this freedom that our founders gave to the press. Who  are the editors of the New York Times to disregard the wishes of the President? And yet the  people who invented this country saw an aggressive, independent press as a protective  measure against the abuse of power in a democracy, and an essential ingredient for self government. They rejected the idea that it is wise, or patriotic, to always take the President  at his word, or to surrender to the government important decisions about what to publish.  Editors start from the premise that citizens can be entrusted with unpleasant and  complicated news, and that the more they know the better they will be able to make their  views known to their elected officials. Our job is to publish information if we are convinced it is fair and accurate, and our biggest failures have generally been when we failed to dig deep  enough or to report fully enough.’ (Ibid., p. 172) 

In 1795, Edmund Burke rose in the House of Commons to state that the press had become ‘the  fourth estate of the realm’, reflecting the increasing democratic importance of print media (Muller, 2020). Over two centuries later, and in rapidly changing forms, the news media continues to play a  central role in supporting democracy. Technological developments have allowed the media to  perform its democratic duties in new, increasingly effective ways (Mervin 1998, p. 20). New  technologies in recent decades have increased the quantity of media news coverage and have  consequently allowed the public to follow political events with an intensity that was not possible  before, improving the potential for public deliberation and scrutiny (Ibid.). C-Span enables US  citizens to watch Congressional debates and BBC Parliament performs a similar role in the UK, whilst  commercial networks cover the news 24/7 (Ibid.). Televised Congressional hearings have enabled  national public deliberations over seismic issues such as McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, Watergate,  and the Iran-Contra affair (Ibid.). 

Developing media technology has also played a critical role in supporting democratic movements in  hostile environments. Social media has allowed for more effective organisation of anti-authoritarian  protest movements. This was particularly evident during the wave of protests that swept through  the Middle East and North Africa in 2010 and 2011. Protestors demonstrating against authoritarian  rule and human rights abuses in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen were able to  communicate with one another via Facebook and Twitter in a manner that would have been  impossible only years before (Tucker et. al., 2017, p. 46). For example, during Iran’s ‘Green Wave  Movement’, social media brought the Islamic Republic’s abuses of power into the eye of the  international media in spite of heavy government censorship and created a powerful network  between disenfranchised voters and abused protestors (Ibid., p. 49). Mark Zuckerberg being  replaced by ‘The Protestor’ as Time Magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ in 2011 is an apt illustration of  the positive overlap existing between media technology and democracy at this time (Ibid., p. 46). 

The importance to democracy of a free and credible media is also evidenced by the way non democratic regimes control and censor the press. Just as a viable press is foundational to a free and  self-governing society, ‘it is also foundational to anti-democratic theory that you need a press  system that manipulates people, keeps them in their place’ (Boler, 2008, p. 21). Authoritarian  regimes attempt to closely control, limit, and monitor the information that their citizens receive.  This helps the state to maintain control and prevent criticism or dissent. In weaker democratic  states, where election results are frequently contested and government institutions struggle to  effectively exert power, the press is often a target for anti-democratic forces. For example, the 2021 Ugandan election, which saw singer Bobi Wine challenge incumbent Yoweri Museveni, featured  ‘unprecedented efforts to block public access to information’ (Maukonen, 2021). The run-up to the  election was described by a representative of the Uganda-based African Centre for Media Excellence  (ACME) as a ‘nightmare’ because the government had cut access to e-mail and other  communications platforms: ‘we don’t know what is true when we don’t have access to all the  information’ (Ibid.). The government later further restricted the free flow of information by attacking  hundreds of Ugandan journalists (Ibid.). General of Police Martin Okoth Ochola made no apology for  repressing the media in this manner: ‘When we tell a journalist, don’t go there and you insist on  going, we shall beat you for your own safety. I have no apology’ (Ibid.). Ugandan citizens were  denied access to Facebook and other social media platforms in the days before the election, and on the day of the election Museveni cut off access to the entire internet (Ibid.). The ACME  representative ultimately concluded that ‘democracy was in darkness…there is no democracy’ (Ibid.). The censoring and attack on free media by anti-democratic forces helps to illustrate the  important role that a free and credible media plays in supporting a democracy. 

Traditional News Media Hindering Democracy  

The media’s power to convey information to the public can be a hinderance to democracy. As the  great political economist Joseph Schumpeter theorised in 1942, the ‘typical citizen is ignorant and  lacks judgement in matters of domestic and foreign policy’ because of the distance between mass  society and the government that implements the will of the people (Schumpeter, 1942, p. 235). The media plays an important role in conveying information across this gap, but it is inherently ‘difficult  to impart to the public unbiased information and arguments’, and therefore the government enacts  ‘not a genuine but a manufactured will’ (Ibid.). The public therefore understands the world, to a  large extent, through a media prism. One notable study that evidences this theory compared media  content in Scandinavian countries such as Finland and Denmark with media content in the UK and  the US (Curran et. al., 2009). It was found that Scandinavian news media covered far greater  quantities of political and international news than the US, and somewhat more than the UK. The  study found that consequently Scandinavians were much better informed on these topics than  Americans (and slightly more informed than British people), neatly demonstrating that the public  mind is significantly moulded and informed by the media.  

The media obstructs democracy when it creates alternative realities rather than honestly  transferring information to the public. Take, for example, the US media’s role in the lead up to the  Iraq War. In the months that preceded the invasion of Iraq, the dominant US media outlets loudly and consistently declared that Iraq was developing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) (Boler, 2008, p. 169). Throughout this period, the dominant US news media amplified the Bush  administration’s voice and buried analysis and evidence of alternative perspectives; they were  largely willing to ‘patriotically’ accept President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s  linkages of 9/11 and terrorism to Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and WMDs (Ibid.). There were lone  journalistic voices that challenged the accepted narrative, such as Barton Gellman, Walter Pincus,  and Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, but these were largely drowned out in a sea of media  adherence to the administration (Ibid.). The media can therefore be ‘mightier than the  bomb…manufacturing consent for war and paving the way for the bombs’ (Ibid., p. 11). The media’s  failure to effectively analyse the state narrative helped to create an alternative reality that took the  US into a war based on incorrect information.  

The dominant news media in the US has become increasingly politically opinionated in the twenty-first century, helping to create and sustain hyperpartisanship and contributing to democratic crises.  Indeed, 83 per cent of Americans believe that the media has a ‘great’ or ‘moderate’ responsibility for  the socio-political divisions that have been so evident in recent years (Gallup/Knight Survey, 2020, p.  4). Despite the rise of social media, cable channels MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News remain the main  source of political news for US citizens (Martin and Yurukoglu, 2017). 39 per cent of Americans say  that they only pay attention to one or two trusted news sources, meaning that a large proportion of  the politically engaged population are almost entirely dependent on a narrow news perspective  (Gallup/Knight 2020, p. 4). These news channels are incredibly powerful – if Fox News had not  existed in 2008, there would have been a six-point percentage swing in the 2008 presidential  election. (Martin and Yurukoglu, 2017). The news media has great power to shape the public mind. 

A significant number of Americans therefore acquire news information from a narrow range of news  sources that influence their knowledge and opinions in a significant way. The politicisation and  polarisation of the news media into distinct ‘media spheres’ has therefore created ‘separate realities’ for distinct sections of the population (Grier, 2019). The two media spheres that have  emerged are a narrow conservative wing and a centre-left wing often derided as the ‘Mainstream  Media’ (or ‘MSM’) (Ibid.). These spheres sometimes so insular that they report on completely  different sets of news. This was vividly exemplified in January 2019 when Fox News angrily criticised a group of Democrats visiting Puerto Rico during a time of government shutdown. This story did not  even appear on other ‘MSM’ news channels. After the trip, Republican Jason Smith told Democrat  Tony Cardenas to ‘Go back to Puerto Rico’, and was forced to clarify to an offended Cardenas that he  had not been targeting his Mexican heritage but the fact that he had been on the trip (Ibid.). That  this needed explaining demonstrated the separate realities that are presented by the distinct  American media spheres. More commonly, the two media spheres present the same news in  strongly contrasting ways. This contributes to the public having deeply polarised opinions on certain  political issues; whilst 84 per cent of Fox-viewing Republicans supported President Donald Trump’s  declaration of National Emergency to build a border wall, only 21 per cent of the rest of the  population did: including non-Fox watching GOP members (Ibid.). Politicised, influential US news  media organisations are presenting different realities to distinct sections of the population.  

US citizens who rely on Fox News and other right-leaning news media are particularly at risk of being  fed false information and misleading realities. Yochai Benkler (Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial  Legal Studies at Harvard Law School) used data analysis to study four million news stories covering  the 2016 presidential election and the following first year of the Trump presidency (Ibid.). The study  found that right-leaning audiences focused their attention heavily on right-leaning media outlets  that were insulated from the rest of the media, whereas moderate and left-leaning citizens looked at  a wider range of sources (with a focus on the news channels labelled the ‘MSM’) (Ibid.). In particular,  Fox dominates the Republican audience share much more than any media network dominates the  Democrat audience; 40 per cent of Trump supporters used Fox as the main source of their political  information in 2016, whilst Hillary Clinton supporters spread their news diet around a variety of  news sources such as NPR, CNN, and the NYT (Ibid.). Importantly, the stories that centre-left  audiences read were predominantly rigorously fact-checked, whilst in contrast news stories  presented by the conservative media wing were often weakly checked or not at all (Ibid.). Within  right-leaning media, Professor Benkler described the existence of a ‘propaganda feedback loop’ in  which conservative media outlets attempted to be ‘ideologically pure’ and define the political  narrative: in these insular circles false information and conspiracy theories thrived (Ibid.). He  ultimately concluded that ‘if one side most trusts Fox News, Hannity, Limbaugh, and Beck, and the  other side most trusts NPR, the BBC, PBS, and The New York Times, one cannot expect both sides to  be equally informed or equally capable of telling truth from identity-confirming fiction’ (Ibid.).  Herein lies the issue; distinct media spheres are feeding alternative realities to their viewers,  contributing to socio-political polarisation and failing to achieve the media’s democratic  responsibility of conveying truthful, reliable, and accurate news to the people.  

The news media is dominated by a small handful of billionaire owners who have the power to shape  the opinions of millions of people. As already demonstrated, the news media has a direct and  tangible impact on the knowledge and opinions of the population. The power that these select few  have to shape and censor the news to promote their interests and agendas undermines democracy by creating a public sphere that is less informed than ever before (McChesney, 2015). Thanks to the  flurry of media mergers and acquisitions that occurred in the US in the 1990s, a climate of oligopoly  emerged in which a small number of people owned the vast majority of US media outlets (Halper on  McChesney, 2001). Notably, Lorwy Mays (founder and former CEO of Clear Channel  Communications) owned over 900 radio and 19 television stations by the late 1990s, whilst Rupert  Murdoch acquired 130 newspapers worldwide as well as a myriad of other global cable channels including the FOX TV Network (Ibid.). In this climate of monopolization and hyper-commercialisation,  a news culture emerged where news departments were viewed as profit centres rather than public  services (Ibid.). As more commercial minutes were added to each hour, stories about the urban  poor, lack of affordable housing, or the widening wage chasm between CEOs and their workers were  run less frequently as the target audience of the programmes became consumers with disposable  income (Ibid.). The upper-class, pro-business bias that McChesney identifies in most major media  news outlets rarely allows opposing views to be aired (Ibid.). This contradicts the original objective of commercial news; the Radio Act (1927) stated that whilst broadcasters could make a profit, they  must operate in the ‘public interest, convenience and necessity’ (McChesney, 2015, p. 247). The  dangers of an overly commercialised media with a condensed ownership structure are clearly  articulated by McChesney: 

‘what was best about professional journalism—e.g., its independence from overt  commercial interference, its commitment to actually covering a community, its emphasis  upon factual accuracy—was disintegrating under commercial pressure from the corporate  news media system as it became an area for massive profitability. Journalism has been in  freefall collapse since the early 2000s…with the emergence of the Internet, advertising no  longer is tethered to journalism and the commercial basis for sufficient general news  production has collapsed. This is a disaster for a political system predicated upon having an  informed and engaged citizenry. There is no reason to believe a widespread and effective  commercial journalism will ever return’ (Ibid., p. 38). 

The UK media suffers from similar ownership issues. Its concentrated ownership structure (six  billionaires own or have a majority of voting shares in the dominant national newspapers) allows for  a small number of privileged voices with vested interests to dominate the media landscape (Jones, 2019). Former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans described to the Leveson Inquiry the editorial  power of Rupert Murdoch: he described being frequently scolded for ‘not doing what Murdoch  wanted in political terms…Murdoch was determined to impose his will’ (Ibid.). David Yelland (former  editor of The Sun) produced an almost Orwellian description of Murdoch’s pervasive influence – ‘Most Murdoch editors wake up in the morning, switch on the radio, hear that something has  happened and think: what would Rupert think about this? It’s like a mantra inside your head, it’s like  a prism. You look at the world through Rupert’s eyes’ (Ibid.). The ability of these few, extremely  wealthy, individuals to shape the public mind is a threat to democracy. 

Powerful corporate influence can persuade news media convey information to the public in a  misleading or inaccurate way. For example, Peter Oborne (former chief political commentator at The  Telegraph) resigned from his role in 2015 when he was censored from writing about HSBC (Ibid.).  The bank was one of the newspaper’s leading corporate advertisers and, as Oborne explained, ‘from the start of 2013 onwards stories critical of HSBC were discouraged…its account was extremely  valuable…it was the advertiser you cannot afford to offend. The Telegraph’s recent coverage of HSBC  amounts to a form of fraud on its readers. It has been placing what it perceives to be the interests of  a major international bank above its duty to bring the news to Telegraph readers’ (Ibid.). The  influence of news media organisation owners and corporate sponsors threatens to stifle the flow of  truthful information to the people.  

Social Media

Whilst social media can be a medium through which challenges to authoritarian regimes can be co ordinated, it can reversely be used by authoritarian regimes to clamp down on citizens who criticise  or challenge the regime. Margaret Roberts (Associate Professor of Political Science at the University  of San Diego) explains that authoritarian regimes are able to this by use of the ‘Three Fs’: fear,  friction, and flooding (Tucker et. al., 2017, p. 50). The digital tracking power of the internet enables  anti-democratic regimes to trace and arrest those expressing sentiments that conflict with the  interests of the regime: Google search ‘Blogger arrested’ and you will generate thousands of hits.  Working alongside the ‘fear’ of arrest is ‘friction’ in the form of website blocking systems (such as  the ‘Great Firewall of China’), internet shutdowns, and algorithmic control over search results to  suppress information that the regime wants to suppress. The third F, ‘flooding’, compliments the  other two techniques effectively; it works by the government spreading strategically timed messages  or using automated bots to disseminate government propaganda across the internet. In these ways,  anti-democratic regimes can utilise social media to consolidate their power.  

Anti-democratic regimes utilise can also utilise social media to launch hostile cyber-attacks on  democratic states. This often comes in the form of spear phishing attacks. Spear phishing is not a  new phenomenon; state-sponsored cyber groups have long attempted to infiltrate government  networks by tricking individuals to reveal sensitive information or download malicious software  (Bossetta, 2018, p. 97). However, social media has provided a new avenue for such cyberattacks:  spear phishing attacks on social media increased by 500 per cent in 2016 (Ibid., p. 98). In the week  after Trump’s inauguration, Russian operatives sent over 10,000 tweets to US Defence Department  employees on Twitter (Ibid., p. 97). The tweets contained hyperlinks that were laced with malware  and were cleverly designed to the individual interest of the employees. This attack was incredibly  effective; the links generated hit rates of nearly 70 per cent and compromised devices that  contained sensitive government information (Ibid.). It was labelled by leading cybersecurity firm  ZeroFOX as ‘the most well organized, coordinated attack at the nation-state level we’ve ever seen…  it’s a harbinger of things to come’ (Ibid., p. 98). Social media can thus be utilised by anti-democratic  regimes to clamp down on internal opposition or launch external attacks on democratic states. 

An even more significant threat to democracies such as the UK and the US is the utilisation of social  media to manipulate the minds of the electorate. In the 2016 US presidential election and the 2016  Brexit referendum, the now defunct Cambridge Analytica utilised social media to enact mass  sentiment change to attempt to influence the results. Cambridge Analytica was closely connected to the British and American defence establishments; the personnel links were numerous and obvious as journalist Carole Cadwalladr exposed (Cadwalladr’s investigation into Robert Mercer and  Cambridge Analytica played a key role in exposing the extent to which the company had interfered  with these elections) (Cadwalladr, 2017, ‘The Great British Brexit Robbery’). As a former Cambridge  Analytica employee explained, ‘before we became this dark, dystopian data company that gave the  world Trump… we were just a psychological warfare firm – the same methods the military use to  effect mass sentiment change. We were just doing it to win elections’ (Ibid.). Professor David Miller,  an expert on psyops and propaganda, argued that it is ‘an extraordinary scandal that this should be  anywhere near a democracy… it raises the question of whether we are actually living in a democracy  or not’ (Ibid.). 

How did ‘mass sentiment change’ work, and how was it used to affect elections? As Tamsin Shaw  (Associate Professor of Philosophy at New York University) explains, ‘the capacity for this science to  be used to manipulate emotions is very well established…it’s about exploiting existing phenomena  like nationalism and then using it to manipulate people’ (Ibid.). It is incredibly simple to utilise an  individual’s personal data to create a personality profile: Michal Kosinski (Associate Professor in Organizational Behaviour at Stanford University Graduate School of Business) has calculated that  with knowledge of 150 Facebook ‘likes’, it is possible to predict someone’s personality better than  their spouse, and with 300 it is possible to understand you better than yourself (Cadwalladr, 2017,  ‘Robert Mercer: The Big Data Billionaire’). Cambridge Analytica unashamedly bragged on its website  that that it had psychological profiles based on 5000 separate pieces of data on 220 million  American voters, and could utilise this data to accurately target people based on their personality  and emotions (Ibid.). This amounted to a ‘propaganda machine’ (Ibid.). With control of this data,  Cambridge Analytica could pinpoint individuals who could be swayed; for example, individuals who  had been flagged as neurotic on their personality profiles were targeted with evocative images of  immigrants swamping over the country in order to generate an emotional response (Cadwalladr,  2017, ‘The Great British Brexit Robbery’). In the week before the Brexit referendum, a small number  of carefully targeted individuals deemed ‘persuadable’ were flooded with over one billion adverts  (Ibid.). Undercover ‘bot’ armies were also deployed across the social media landscape to help effect  mass sentiment change. These bots were programmed to look and act like people and were deployed to change the topic of conversation or make certain topics trend, bombarding users with a  specific message and drowning out other sources of information. Before the Brexit referendum, as  high a proportion as one third of all Twitter traffic was bot activity: all these bots were for Leave  (Cadwalladr, 2017, ‘Robert Mercer: The Big Data Billionaire’). Before the 2016 presidential election  they were 5:1 in favour of Trump (Ibid.). Perhaps even more alarmingly, Cambridge Analytica also  worked on campaigns in several important US states with the key objectives of ‘voter  disengagement’ and ‘persuading Democrats to stay at home’ (Cadwalladr, 2017, ‘The Great British  Brexit Robbery’). 

Social media has thus become a battleground where people are unknowingly ‘brainwashed’ and  have their ‘minds changed’ (Cadwalladr 2017, ‘Robert Mercer: The Big Data Billionaire’). Dominic  Cummings wrote in his blog that Brexit was decided by about 600,000 people: just over one per cent  of registered voters (Cadwalladr, 2017, ‘The Great British Brexit Robbery’). Given the accuracy and  effectiveness of the cognitive warfare techniques deployed by Cambridge Analytica, it is not  unreasonable to argue that Robert Mercer (former principal investor in Cambridge Analytica), a  billionaire member of the top one per cent of society, played a critical role in determining the  outcome of the Brexit referendum. This computer science genius, according to a former Cambridge  Analytica employee, ‘spent huge amounts of money to build his own experimental science lab to  find tiny slivers of influence that can tip an election’ (Ibid.). Control over information allows for  control over reality; the manipulation of electorates using military techniques in a social media  landscape undermines elections and presents a severe challenge to democracy. 

Social media does not have to be manipulated or weaponised for it to be a danger to democracy.  John Stuart Mill, speaking on importance of international trade, famously stated that ‘it is hardly  possible to overrate the value of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to  themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar’  (Sunstein, 2017, p. 11). Social media platforms use algorithms designed for the exact opposite to  occur. Social media users have the ability to construct a ‘Daily Me’, a term coined in 1995 by  Nicholas Negroponte to depict the increasing power of the individual to deliberately control the  information they interact with; the internet provided ‘people with growing power to filter what they  see’ and information providers ‘growing power to filter information for each of us, based on what  they know about us’ (Ibid., p. 13). Every click, like, and follow is used by social media algorithms to  provide users with content that they will find interesting and opinions that they will agree with. This  threatens democratic cohesion; the creation of distinct information ecosystems is dramatically increasing socio-political polarisation because individuals tend to take-up more extreme positions  when surrounded by like-minded people. Hyperpartisanship and polarisation are thus driven by social media echo chambers, preventing people from engaging with ‘modes of thought unlike those  with which they are familiar’. Social media echo chambers also create a perfect environment in  which misinformation and conspiracy theories can spread; echo chambers create cybercascades in  which individuals parrot information without using sufficient critical thinking or analysis to evaluate  whether the information is likely to be objectively true (Ibid., p. 98). Donald Rumsfeld’s 2006  statement that ‘a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has its boots on’ rings more  relevant today than ever before (Boler, 2008, p. 1). The 2020 US election provided a dramatic  demonstration of the genuine democratic threat that echo chambers and cybercascades can create.  Huge swathes of the American population were convinced that wide-scale electoral fraud had  corruptly handed electoral victory to Joe Biden, despite no reputable evidence validating their  claims. This belief was fuelled by false information and misleading images that rapidly spread across  social media platforms. The election of a QAnon-supporting representative to Congress is further  evidence of the increasing power and popularity of conspiracy theories that primarily spread on  social media platforms. Social media therefore contributes to the socio-political fragmenting of  society and presents a severe challenge to democracy. 


The media remains, as it has always been, a fundamental component of democracy. Modern  democracies are enacted through representation and the media informs the people of what is being  done in their name. The issues with traditional media organisations and social media that I have  highlighted are therefore problems that strike at the very core of democratic society. Politicised  newscasting and concentrated ownership structures dilute the quality and reliability of the  information the public receives, making it difficult for the people to access the truth. Distinct  realities are presented by different politicised news channels, contributing to troubling socio political divisions. Echo chambers and cybercascades create similarly distinct realities on social  media, contributing to the increasing prevalence of extreme political opinions and the spread of  false information and conspiracy theories. Social media is also a tool through which free and fair  elections can be undermined by those with the wealth, means, and agenda. The people who live in  democratic societies now live in a time where the media is struggling to convey information in the  way that it should and must do. Correcting these problems will prove challenging but must happen if  democracy is to survive.  


Carole Cadwalladr (2017), ‘Robert Mercer: The Big Data Billionaire Waging War on Mainstream  Media’, The Guardian, 26 February. 

Carole Cadwalladr (2017), ‘The Great British Brexit Robbery: How our Democracy was Hijacked’, The  Guardian, 7 May. 

Cass Sunstein (2017), #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. 

David Mervin (1998), ‘The News Media and Democracy in the United States’, Democratization  (Volume 5, Issue 2), published online 26 September 2007.

Denis Muller (2020), ‘Media Have Helped Create a Crisis of Democracy – Now They Must Play a Vital  Role in its Revival’, The Conversation, 23 June. 

Donna Halper (2001), Review of Robert McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication  Politics in Dubious Times, H-World, H-Net Reviews, January. 

Ed Jones (2019), ‘Five Reasons Why We Don’t Have a Free and Independent Press in the UK and  What We Can Do About It’, Open Democracy, 18 April. 

Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey (2020), ‘American Views 2020: Trust, Media and Democracy A  Deepening Divide’, Knight Foundation, 9 November. 

Gregory J. Martin and Ali Yurukoglu (2017), ‘Bias in Cable News: Persuasion and Polarization’, American Economic Review (Volume 107, Number 9), 9 September. 

James Curran, Shanto Iyengar, Anker Brink Lund, Inka Salovaara-Moring (2009), ‘Media System,  Public Knowledge and Democracy: A Comparative Study’, European Journal of Communication (Volume 24, Issue 1), 1 March. 

Joseph Schumpeter (1942), Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy

Joshua Tucker, Yannis Theocharis, Margaret Roberts (2017), ‘From Liberation to Turmoil: Social  Media and Democracy’, Journal of Democracy (Volume 28, Issue 4), October. 

Jürgen Krönig (2004), ‘A Crisis in the Fourth Estate’, The Guardian, 16 August. Megan Boler (Ed.) (2008), Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times

Michael Bossetta (2018), ‘The Weaponization of Social Media: Spear Phishing and Cyberattacks on  Democracy’, Journal of International Affairs (Volume 70, Number 1.5), January. 

Peter Grier (2019), ‘Is America’s Media Divide Destroying Democracy?’, The Christian Science  Monitor, 16 April. 

Riikka Maukonen (2021), ‘‘Democracy in Darkness’: Uganda’s Journalists Under Pressure Amid  Pivotal Election’, International Press Institute, 15 January. Robert McChesney (2015), Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times.

Published by Impala Global

Our goal is to ensure that the global health and human rights implications of technology are considered to ensure an inclusive future.

10 thoughts on “The Media and Democracy

  1. Up there with climate chang as one of the biggest threats to social and geopolitical stability. Good to see coverage. Ongoing relationship between social media and news outlets, i. e. case in Australia with News Corp and Facebook, would be interesting to hear more on!


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