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In a new paper, Bridget Barrett, Katharine Dommett, and Daniel Kreiss conduct a comparative analysis of policy discourse in the United States and the United Kingdom. Barrett, Dommett, and Kreiss find that despite the growing emphasis on technological threats to society, much of the post-2016 body of research on “social media and democracy” upholds a vision of democracy that is increasingly framed by unrealistic ideals and is overly focused on the effects of technology, while ignoring empirical evidence that contemporary democratic crises are rooted in conflicts over identity, social status and power. 

They also find that while policy discussions in the UK and the US share common ideals, there are inconsistencies in how these ideals are interpreted, and the policy-making discourse is often out of step with the research literature on democratic practice. When policymakers espouse democratic ideals that do not reflect the realities of democratic life, they risk creating policy interventions that at best prove to be ineffective solutions for the problems they were designed for, and at worst, make them worse.  

There has been surprisingly little scrutiny of the precise democratic ideals that technologies are seen to undermine or the tensions that might arise between them. It is therefore often left unstated why something is problematic and what would be preferred on democratic grounds. This ambiguity matters because, as is widely acknowledged in democratic theory, the nature and form of democracy can be conceptualized in a range of different ways. This suggests that though researchers and policymakers often discuss democracy as a self-evident ideal, they may possess and promote different democratic goals.”

You can read the full paper here.

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