Media and its consumption has become inextricably integrated in modern life, with the ability to “shrink geographic distances and facilitate information exchange [to create] a global village” (Barbera, 2020, p.36). Specifically, social media gives individuals the ability to participate in the publication of media actively and instantaneously from the comfort of their own homes, allowing anyone to contribute to discourse of important subjects. While social media platforms have the ability to facilitate democratic discourse, this means they are also weaponized as a means of publicizing hatred, violence and discrimination, through the creation, publication and polarization of publics and counter publics.
The constant circulation and publication of user media within the realms of social media platforms results in the consumption of information and therefore the creation of publics, and corresponding counter publics. As defined by Michael Warner, “a public is the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse”, thought to occur through conversations between an “author/ reader model” (Warner, 2002, p.420). As present in social media the blurred line created through democratic discourse, where there is no clear authority figure, results in a boundless multitude of discourses and subsequent publics. While there is debate on the definitive definition of counter publics, Warner states that these publics of differing perspectives must “oppose dominant discourse” through the reconfiguration of “hierarchy [of] media”, amongst other things (Fattal, 2018, p.1). The presence of counter publics is one often on the offensive, within social media this often creates strong opposition and tension between publics that are related to cardinal discourses, such as political content. Within the sphere of social media counter publics are given a platform in which they are able to adamantly and publicly oppose publics. The interactivity of social media paired with the infinite discourse between publics and counter publics, creates a framework to habilitate and encourage further tension between opposing groups.
The democratic nature of social media encourages the publicization and exposure of users to a multitude of varying perspectives. This encouragement of democracy results in the opposition of publics intentionally being brought to the attention of social media users to induce rapport between publics that ultimately incentives further polarization. As previously mentioned, political content is discourse that results in immensely differing publics and counter publics. Political disagreement and opposition are induced through cross-cutting, the intentional exposure to other perspectives, within social media. While the cross-cutting of political views allows for the development of “[increased] awareness” between opposing sides, it also results negative repercussions, such as “[elevated] polarization” (Goyanes et al., 2021, p.2). The polarization within political disagreement often results in social media users publishing media that encourages or reflects forms of violence against publics that they personally oppose. These hateful forms of media “[hinder] the free and respectful exchange of ideas and delegitimizes political arguments” (Goyanes et al., 2021, p.2). Ultimately, causing the democratic space of social media to be weaponized and used for personal vendettas, rather than creating mutual respect amongst differing perspectives.
The rapport between users that fall within publics and counter publics is one that is often hyperbolized and induced through social media, as it “exposes people to a greater diversity of news, as well as possible political disagreement” (Goyanes et al., 2021. p.2). Social media facilitates and acts as a means for the polarization of political publics as it is a primary distributor of news, with seventy percent of American adults who consume news through social media (Liedke & Matsa, 2022). As social media is now the predominate news source it is no wonder that political polarization continues to increase: “political polarization in the United States has […] increased the least amongst citizens who are least likely to use social media” (Barbera, 2020, p.35). This is concerning as compared to the previous year of surveyal, the percentage of adults who use social media as a news source has increased by three percent (Liedke & Matsa, 2022). This indicates that polarization will continue to rise subsequent to social media expanding as a prominent news platform.
Ultimately, the instantaneous and constant publication of user media is made possible due to social media being a democratic space, which in turn facilitates an environment that fosters discourse via user publications. The scale of social media engagement and distribution of content results in the creations of publics and counter publics that are induced to be polarized against one another due to social media’s democracy regarding the publication and publicization of differing views. Although the publicizing of these differing views gives the opportunity for opposing publics to understand one another’s perspective, the framework of social media platforms encourages tension through user interactivity, such as leaving comments or hate speech posting. Meaning the aspects of social media that make it “democratic”, like user publication and interaction, are ultimately what results in its downfall. There is a tendency within platforms for groups that are counter publics that feel underrepresented to create their own representation through the exploitation of the democratic nature of social media. These exploitations result in further polarization and online violence between oppositions rather than an amicable conclusion.
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