Researcher calls for more democratic online forums

27 March 2020

It’s been over 20 years since the internet was popularised, but did it really become the democratic arena many hoped for? Doubtful, according to Malin Holm, a researcher at Uppsala University. Power online is basically a reproduction of society at large.

“When newspapers replaced their letters to the editor pages with digital comments, they also opened up for more extreme views than were previously allowed to have public viewing. It’s apparent that many media companies lacked a strategy for handling the situations that arose, and many editors that I’ve interviewed say they went from ‘highlighting the best to cutting the worst’,” says Malin Holm, a researcher at Uppsala University’s Department of Government.

Today over half of the world’s population has internet access. In Sweden, 98 per cent of the population is connected. This development has helped open up closed societies and increased opportunities for communication among people. On the other hand, it has also given antidemocratic, previously isolated groupings a platform to mobilise others and a tool to attack opponents.

“Many news organisations have chosen to turn off commenting, but of course it would be better to work actively to make the internet a truly democratic arena. Moving the debate to completely uncontrolled forums benefits those that yell loudest, above all, which in turn leads to those with the strongest voices being heard the most online. Today, the majority of all online forums are designed to promote the already privileged, and quite correctly, power online reflects how the rest of society looks.”

Malin Holm, Uppsala University

In a study of Swedish antifeminist blogs, Malin Holm showed that the publishers (men and some women) were highly educated, well paid and surrounded by a significant social network. These findings conflict with the commonly held belief that the internet’s anonymity primarily conceals lone men at society’s socioeconomic periphery. On the other hand, many of the studied bloggers saw themselves as politically marginalised.

“Early in the process, I published a draft working document on an internal conference page. A short time later I became the target of a large number of criticisms and a couple of threats. It was clear that the people reacting were familiar with the research material and had the capacity to quickly muster a unified attack. This supported my thesis that this is a privileged group in terms of resources and when I studied these bloggers, they were shown to include doctors, researchers and engineers, people who, in spite of their privileged position, felt that they were silenced in the public debate.”

On a global level, the digital challenges are in part different. Several authoritarian regimes use the internet to polarise and undermine debate. According to the Freedom House research institute, 26 of 65 studied countries in 2018 have undermined democratic voices online. The studies also show that female parliamentarians are more often subjected to psychological and sexual harassment online. With financial support from the Swedish Research Council, Malin Holm has begun a study of what candidates in the 2019 Tunisian election experienced online.

“I will interview close to 40 women and men who ran for office, and by comparing experiences between ideologically closely aligned individuals, we hope to see how criticism and attacks are created based on a gender perspective. Tunisia is an interesting democracy, in the aftermath of the Arabic Spring, with a volatile political arena where parties come and go in quick succession. It will likely be an explorative study where we must be ready to follow up new clues that reveal themselves onsite.”

At home in Sweden, many newspapers have reintroduced the option for readers to write comments to online articles. Now, though, most news organisations require that users register, which seems to have already resulted in a certain degree of self-moderation in comments. Malin Holm thinks she sees a more factual tone and fewer attacks compared to what was seen in comments when she began her research.

“Without having counted, the signatures seem to indicate that commenters in media are primarily Swedish middle-aged men, but naturally it would be interesting to systematically study which groups actually comment and on what subjects. Likewise, it would be incredibly valuable to create a functioning and fair online forum without having to rely on a privately owned company to develop and operate it. We have certainly seen the advantages where truly marginalised groups have finally been able to make their voices heard in a democratic context.”

Facts

  • The Gender and Social Media in Contentious Elections project aims to study how social media impact political candidates in repressive states and if there is a difference between how male and female candidates are impacted.
  • Social media can offer opposition and other marginalised groups new opportunities for organising and campaigning. On the other hand, they give oppressive regimes new tools to silence and scare opposition politicians.
  • In the project, the researchers will study both dynamics in relation to the 2019 parliamentary election in Tunisia.

More information