Saving the world with a “like”?

Adding rainbow flags and the dove of peace to profile pictures and lighting an online candle to oppose racism: social engagement is effortless on social media channels. We spoke to Christina Peter, a scholar in the field of communication, about the role networks play for movements like Fridays for Future or #metoo.

Back in 2010, when the Arab Spring emerged in a series of protests and uprisings, people felt that social media could offer new opportunities in terms of democratic politics for those who had previously gone unheard. Did this prove true?
During the Arab Spring, social media channels provided a way to access images and eyewitness accounts from the affected region. At the time, many also used social media to connect on the ground in preparation for the demonstrations. We have seen something similar in the Ukraine war, although in this case the flip side has become visible as well: fake news. In agitated circumstances such as these, information travels fast, and often flows from non-professional sources. For the user, the distinction between what is real and what is fake quickly becomes unclear. The bogus Klitschko calls to Austrian and German mayors provide an example of the high level of professionalism of these deep fakes.

Can anyone draw attention and start a movement with any cause on social media today?

To begin with, there was the hope that all marginalised people would be given a voice. In the end, however, the range of those who actually raise their voices is limited. People need access and it takes skill to be heard. But we are witnessing a diversification of topics, which are receiving attention outside of the social media platforms as well.

So far, traditional media have acted as gatekeepers. If you didn’t get past them, you didn’t reach a large public audience. Is it different when it comes to social media?
Yes, classical media operate according to clearly defined criteria, so-called news factors: relevance, the gravity of an event, topicality, prominence and so on. Initially there is a lot of reporting, but then it peters out relatively quickly. Movements like Fridays for Future succeed in keeping certain topics in the conversation, including outside of the media, and manage to generate continuous feedback in the newspapers, on television and on the radio by staging campaigns and events.

Who are the people who use social media proactively and are vocal advocates of their causes there?

We know that the noisy ones typically tend to be male and extroverted, and are more inclined to have extreme political views. The broad centre is less vocal. With movements like Fridays for Future or Black Lives Matter, we can see that people who are already committed tend to connect with each other. That works very well.

Do these movements stand a chance of bringing about real political change?
Yes! For me, Fridays for Future offers the best example of this. I believe that the movement also has a part to play in the fact that the political sphere is now increasingly focusing on the climate catastrophe.

Yes! For me, Fridays for Future offers the best example of this. I believe that the movement also has a part to play in the fact that the political sphere is now increasingly focusing on the climate crisis.

Can you give any other examples?
In my view, politicians are often not very good at gauging how to interpret a mood on social media. Let’s take the Corona measures as an example. In spring 2021, policymakers in this country argued that the population would no longer support the measures. They claimed that this could be seen, for example, in the angry comments posted on Facebook or Twitter. But this ignores the fact that those objecting are often particularly vociferous on these channels, while their numbers are not all that high. The opinion polls conducted at that time indicated that the majority of the population backed the measures. Social media created a distorted image that had real repercussions for politics.

What is special about the online demonstration culture?
Online demonstrations are fairly comfortable: You click on ‘like’, share a post or sign a petition with just a few clicks. We call this slacktivism. This allows individuals to speak out in favour of a cause without making any effort. But there is a risk: A dove of peace is easily pinned to one‘s profile picture; in the end, however, as a society we need people who work hard to care for refugees or who make donations. Many people have the impression that by clicking, they have already made their contribution. It’s telling, when we look back at the last G7 summit in Munich: 20,000 people registered to march online, but only 5,000 people actually took to the streets.

Can you communicate more emotionally on social media than through other channels?  
In general, we are observing that emotionality is also becoming more and more prevalent in journalism. Today, it is hard to imagine a piece of reporting without the emotions that go hand in hand with the story behind a particular case. The eyewitness character, by contrast, is more pronounced online. I can say: This or that has happened to me. When many people do this and masses of individual stories become visible, there’s no stopping a phenomenon like #metoo. In that case, it’s a good thing that there is no gatekeeping by the media, that everyone can raise their voice. Elsewhere, where fake news is spread, we have a huge problem with the fact that no one is keeping an eye on the veracity of the stories.

Is it possible to consciously plan and execute a movement as an individual?
Yes, this can and does work, for instance in the sphere of non-conformists, or so-called Querdenker. Behind conspiracy theories there are often individuals who have developed and deliberately spread them – with great skill. Take ‘Birds are not real’, for example. Supporters believe that birds no longer exist. According to them, they were replaced by drones that are now monitoring us. Governments had to invent the pandemic because the drones were running out of power and the batteries needed to be replaced. That’s the reason why there were lockdowns during which we stayed at home. This conspiracy narrative was sparked as a joke by a single person and has garnered a lot of coverage, though most people probably recognise its satirical nature. But it demonstrates how easy it is to find like-minded people on the web who are willing to believe any nonsense.

Some might say that the story is quite entertaining.

What appears funny at first, can unfortunately have dangerous consequences. Our democracy depends on valid information that is available to us all and that we also recognise as fact. If, however, we drift into the post-factual, in which everything is opinion and nothing is information, it is destructive for democracy. This is a great danger, especially in uncertain times.

When we use social media channels to promote our causes, we are operating on an infrastructure that is in the hands of US-based, market-oriented companies.
There is no denying it: Many of these campaigns, which are also directed against capitalism, use the capitalist-oriented social media channels. Admittedly, time and again there are local initiatives to establish local channels. But humans are creatures of comfort; we see this in the modest number of those using fair search engines. Ultimately, we always end up back at Google.

How does this play a role in these movements?
I don’t think more people would join the conversation if the state were to run a social network. But if we look at it on the level of the politics of democracy, the issue can have wider implications. As a citizen, I do not have the right to an account, which means that I could also be excluded from the debate if the company so decides. Still more problematic, in my view, is the fact that these platforms have not yet taken sufficient action against misinformation and hate speech. We observe that Facebook, YouTube and Co. prefer to incur fines rather than trying to come up with effective instruments to combat the problem.

In which direction do you think social media will develop?
I think there will be even greater differentiation. Originally, Facebook was for everyone. Today, Facebook is the platform of the older people. In addition, Instagram and TikTok have emerged as platforms for the young, which focus more on the feel-good factor and face less hostility and hate than, for example, discussion networks such as Twitter. However, we do see the problem of positivity bias on these feelgood platforms. It is all fun and beautiful, everyone is always in a good mood and on holiday, exercising or enjoying a good meal. That also has an effect on us. On Twitter, the elite discuss politics, media and society. I believe that there will be more and more generation-specific offers along these lines.

On TikTok and Instagram, pictures predominate. Is it even possible – with virtually no text – to position serious topics?
We recently interviewed a number of influencers about this. For them, Instagram continues to be the most important platform for building community: This is where people conduct polls, communicate with their followers and also publish individual messages. TikTok has the fastest learning algorithm currently available. The platform works on the basis of humour and operates purely on the logic of attention. Influencers find TikTok helpful because they can spread information far and wide and generate a lot of clicks quickly. But TikTok also offers really good news content that is aimed at a young target group.

If the offer becomes more differentiated, will we also see more Mark Zuckerbergs in this market?
I expect blockchains to play an increasingly important role in this field. In future, the central players might move further into the background. They will be replaced by databases where responsibilities and tasks are distributed among many, many people. That would also be an opportunity to organise the networks in a more democratic way. But whether that will happen remains to be seen.

Will we also be paying for social media?
Currently, the channels are “free” for us at first glance, but in reality, we pay for them with our data. Most users don’t mind this, because they do not perceive any disadvantages, not even when they are shown personalised advertisements. In my opinion, it will take a tangible disadvantage for us to be willing to shift elsewhere and to accept payment models there. When it comes to paywalls in the traditional media, we can already see that fewer and fewer people are willing to take out their credit cards.

for ad astra: Romy Müller

About Christina Peter

Christina Peter joined the Department of Media and Communications as full professor in October 2021. She studied Communication Science and Political Science at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. From 2009 to 2015, she was a research assistant at the Department of Communication Studies and Media Research at LMU Munich, where she completed her doctorate in 2014. After gaining her doctorate, she worked as an assistant professor at the Department of Communication Studies and Media Research at the LMU Munich. She was a Visiting Professor at the Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media (2017- 2018) and at the University of Vienna (2018). Her main research interests are: digitisation and digital communication, political communication and media psychology. Her research centres on the use of social media and its effect on adolescents and young adults in particular, the dissemination and refutation of misinformation, and hatred and hostility online.