Being unsocial on social media: the implications for civic and political engagement

Marko Skoric

19 Mar 2019, 3 p.m.
Room D (Chateau)

This paper examines the phenomena of political filtering and unfriending on social media, and discusses their civic and political implications in a comparative, international context.

Since the early days, social media have generally been viewed as communication ecologies that connect citizens and promote information flows across the existing divides in society, potentially exposing citizens to a wide range of diverse viewpoints and opinions, often serendipitously.

Although early research supported an optimistic view that social media can reinvigorate our social, civic and political lives, we are now less optimistic about their impact — the discussion of echo chambers and political polarisation seems to dominate our daily discourse.

Why did social media platforms suddenly become the villains in the story of technology and democracy? Marko suggests that we have overemphasised the importance of social media connectivity, while neglecting social media’s filtering and “disconnection” affordances.

Indeed, social media platforms allow users to easily disconnect from others through “unfriending” and avoid unwanted content via “unfollowing”, and “blocking”. By doing so, users redefine the boundaries of their online social networks, restrict the information flow, and shield themselves from undesirable content and people.

Furthermore, today the bulk of digital conversations happen over instant messaging (IM) apps which promote private, small-group communication and stand in sharp contrast to more open social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, in the era that follows the revelations of Edward Snowden and the Cambridge Analytica controversy, many people have retreated to more private, encryption-protected digital chambers.

How do these changes in the structure and nature of online communication shape individuals’ political worldviews and behaviors? Marko presents survey evidence from several studies, analysing the implications of unfriending, filtering, and IM communication on civic and political behavior and attitudes across several Western and Asian countries.