Could social networking actually be a threat to democracy?

Most analysis about social networking tends to focus on the phenomenon’s utopian qualities, but rarely take the dystopian view which focuses on its negative side effects on society. A more critical view holds that social media in fact works more against democracy rather than for it.

The idealists tell us that social media is “democracy in action”, giving voice to millions and breaking down traditional information distribution channels and power structures.

At the Fortune-Time-CNN Global Forum in Cape Town on Sunday, we heard a different view.

CEO of emerging market media giant Naspers, Koos Bekker, reckons the social networking revolution, now truly a global phenomenon, may actually be breaking down “cohesion” in society — a cohesion vital for functioning democracies.

Naspers is a US$15-billion media company focused on internet investments in emerging markets. Bekker was joined on stage by reknown Silicon Valley Angel Investor Esther Dyson and Kenyan mobile entrepreneur Nathan Eagle.

Bekker pointed to the two-party system in the United States, which he argued was supported by a pre-internet media environment less fragmented than that of today where there were only a handful of TV networks and newspapers. Although less choice for people, from a sociological point of view this worked to create “cohesion” and common points of view in society.

“The problem with social networks is that they are fragmenting the world… it breaks the common conversation or vernacular. That ‘standardising effect’ of the past is falling apart. It’s a bad thing for democracy,” he said.

Bekker predicts that this fragmenting or siloing effect on society would most likely cause the United States’ two-party system to “break up”. The result would be many political options reflecting niche and fragmented views. He asked the question: Is this actually good for democracy?

Dyson was quick to point out that in fact the US’s two-party system existed long before the existence of mass media in the US, suggesting that Bekker was overstating his argument, but agreed that social networks were “not nirvana”.

Jon Fortt, a senior writer at Fortune Magazine and moderator of the panel, summed up the paradox nicely: On the one hand social networks bring people together, but on the other, have a siloing effect on people — a myopia that repeatedly reinforced limited world views, insulated by user’s networks.

It’s not just about Facebook

Bekker forcefully dispelled the notion that social networking was a “US phenomenon”, pointing to large social networks in Russia, China and Japan.

His company, once a South African-focused newspaper company, acquired a 46.5% stake in Chinese social networking giant TenCent, whose instant messenger and social network QQ claims to have more than one-billion users. This is roughly double that of acclaimed social networking leader, Facebook.

Matthew Buckland: Publisher


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