Winnie Lam, Remi Edwards – Social media as a site of social conflict

Meaningful political debate is limited within corporate-controlled social media, which is designed for rapid content consumption.

Winnie Lam is a Doctoral Researcher at the Management School, University of Sheffield.
Remi Edwards is a Doctoral Researcher in Politics & IR at the University of Sheffield.

Cross-posted from University of Sheffield’s SPERI blog

Picture by Nenad Stjokovic

Online spaces, such as social media platforms, are increasingly important sites of political and social deliberation. Social movements, political campaigners, and boycotters make use of the fast, cheap and easy style of communication, but often with limited or unintended consequences. What is the impact of online activism on social movements in the context of algorithmic rule and corporate influence on online content creation? Who benefits from such conflicts and do avenues to enact real change online exist? 

Although many internet users view online space as public space, it is heavily circumscribed by corporate interests in an era of attention economy. Politicians, activists and businesses try to grasp people’s attention, shape their behaviour and achieve particular aims (e.g. secure advertising income or donations, spread information, gain popularity). While activists may hope to use social media to call for a boycott and raise awareness, various features of online spaces may hinder its effectiveness. Online space, including sites with both social and content elements, is commercial space governed by corporations’ algorithms and quasi-laws – often called Community Guidelines/Standards – that decide the income, reach and acceptability of content and users.

Youtube is set to rake in upwards of $30bn in advertising revenue in 2023. Yet, the streaming platform has policies that limit the monetisation of videos that Youtube defines as inappropriate for advertising, such as political and sensitive topics. While this move may be seen, on the one hand, as an attempt to prevent profiteering by content creators through engaging in contested political issues, it has also been criticised. For example, content creators who relied on income derived from YouTube found they were unable to do so for promoting behaviour such as mask-wearing during the COVID19 pandemic. While this may at first appear an attempt at depoliticisation by YouTube, it also demonstrates its power to reward or discourage the type of content that appears on the platform, and ultimately incentivises ad-friendly content as opposed to robust political and social engagement.

Additionally, the ways online space is administered depend on the operation model and business incentive of the corporation that owns the online spaces. Social media sites are designed for fast content consumption to boost data gathering and income, from advertising, shopping, and subscriptions, working to attract more users and engagement on these sites. This involves creating a user-friendly, tailored and attention-grabbing environment, including “personalisation” of content. This can have the additional impact of cultivating an echo chamber, leading to polarised online communities that are not encouraged to reach one another via meaningful discussion. Even when opinions do break out of their respective chamber to reach users with alternative views, it is often in the form of brief hot takes, memes and decontextualised clips that may enhance controversial and polarising conflict, rather than be the foundation of useful debate and social deliberation. Social media platforms have user interfaces designed for quick user engagement with content, so longer-form opinion is falling out of favour with media consumers, further undermining prospects for productive online debate.

Furthermore, research suggests that interpersonal expressions and perceptions of emotion are amplified on social media. Engagement is often faceless and involves people from afar, and attempts to engage in online activism can have wide-ranging, unintended and counter-productive consequences. Most recently this is exemplified by the boycott of the game Hogwarts Legacy, due to the views of the author of the Harry Potter franchise. Despite the attempt to limit the exposure of the game by disrupting streaming and criticising those who planned to broadcast the game, the game has been a commercial success with 15 million copies sold. The campaign created awareness of Rowling’s sentiments but also triggered the further spread of transphobic messages. This demonstrates the instability of online space as a domain for activism. Social-media based activism is also often accused of slacktivism – action involving a low-stakes display of support that is superficial, ineffective, and diverts energy that could be utilised more constructively, resulting in a lack of significant contribution to the overall cause.

If the concerned group didn’t benefit from the boycott of the game, who did? First, content creators may gain content engagement when commenting on various politicised causes, incentivised by algorithmic rules and monetisation of emotions online. In the case of the Harry Potter boycott, the product itself gained “free” exposure. Platforms themselves also gain more browsing time and engagement, which may still benefit their data gathering if not directly beneficial to advertising. These consequences perhaps are not what activists hoped to achieve.

Do social media avenues to enact real change online exist? As social media has become a bigger part of our lives, how can we make the best use of these commercial spaces to achieve meaningful engagement in social issues and politics? The short-form nature of many online interactions can result in miscommunication, misunderstanding and warping of debated topics that result in unproductive political discussion. With the highly corporatised nature of online space, radical discourse is heavily circumscribed by organisations who, above all else, just want to keep us scrolling. Yet, with the ever-growing significance of social media for 21st century communication, we are faced with carving a path that combines instrumentalised usage of online space with long-form and ‘real-world’ forms of political action.

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