Social media and political partisanship – A subaltern public sphere’s role in democracy

  • Authors: Lee, Paul S.N.; So, Clement Y.K.; Lee, Francis; Leung, Louis; Chan, Michael
  • Telematics and Informatics
  • October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1016/j.tele.2018.06.007


Social media, as a subaltern public sphere (Fraser, 1990), have a democratic function in providing an alternative platform for minorities and marginalized to defy mainstream discourses in the public sphere. However, social media have been found to have an echo chamber effect, which may be detrimental to democracy. They may help to accelerate the ascendancy of a “post-truth” era in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. A study on political polarization, however, showed that selective exposure and avoidance in social media are weak indicators of polarization (Johnson et al., 2017). This study examines the role of social media in democracy and partisan politics. The authors considered that despite the echo chamber effect, social media have a limited part to play in the formation of polarized stances compared with other factors, such as demographics, political orientation, and mass media use. The study tested two main hypotheses: H1: Social media use is associated with political stance that is marginalized in the mainstream media; H2: Political orientation has a stronger relationship than social media use with the stance toward political values and social issues. The results supported both hypotheses. Social media are associated with political stance that is marginalized in the mainstream media. However, when compared with other factors, the relationship between social media and stance becomes less obvious. Although the echo chamber effect may reinforce the original stance, social media do not exhibit a strong relationship with the stance toward political values and social issues. Partisan orientation and use of partisan mass media are found to have stronger links with variations in stance. Social media, however, provide a subaltern public sphere for those excluded from the dominant public sphere, thus extending the public sphere to accommodate multiple opinions and perspectives.


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