As an antidote to the current pessimism about the social effects of social media, Ethan Zuckerman offers an essay "Six or seven things social media can do for democracy." He takes his title from an article by Schudson, “Six or Seven Things News Can Do for Democracy,” that anchored his book, "Why Democracies Need an Unloveable Press." Schudson's list of functions for journalism or news is to inform, investigate, analyze, be a public forum, be a tool for social empathy, be a force for mobilization, and promote representative democracy.
Zukerman makes a similar list for the functions of social media, that I condense here:
1. Social media can inform us. (Arab Spring, Ferguson Missouri) but also misinform us (fake news, pizza parlor prostitution ring.)
2. Social media can an amplify important voices and issues (which might either strengthen or weaken democracy)
3. Social media can be a tool for connection and solidarity (of either good or evil groups, pro or anti democratic.)
4. Social media can be a space for mobilization (Tahrir Square, Taksim Gezi Park, Charlottesville, pro or anti-democratic.)
5. Social media can be a space for deliberation debate (yet also disappointing, mean, petty, superficial, uncivil.) There needs to be more effort to build civil platforms.
6. Social media can show us diversity of views and perspectives. (However, bubbles, homophily, racism, ethnonationalism, can inhibit this). Conscious intervention is needed change this.
7. Social media can be a model for democratically governed spaces. Social platforms should seek, be based on consent of their communities. (Example of Reddit, ~1000 volunteer moderators, rules, policing of rule breakers.)
One of Zuckerman's concluding paragraphs
Finally, it’s also fair to note that there’s a dark side to every democratic function I’ve listed. The tools that allow marginalized people to report their news and influence media are the same ones that allow fake news to be injected into the media ecosystem. Amplification is a technique used by everyone from Black Lives Matter to neo-Nazis, as is mobilization, and the spaces for solidarity that allow Jen Brea to manage her disease allow “incels” to push each other towards violence. While I feel comfortable advocating for respectful dialog and diverse points of view, someone will see my advocacy as an attempt to push politically correct multiculturalism down their throat, or to silence the exclusive truth of their perspectives through dialog. The bad news is that making social media work better for democracy likely means making it work better for the Nazis as well. The good news is that there’s a lot more participatory democrats than there are Nazis.