Social media and democracy

Prof. Dr. Thomas Pleil lectures on Online Communication at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences (h_da), as well as being spokesperson for their Institute for Communication and Media (ikum). In 2018 he was presented with the h_da Scientific Award. During an interview with ‘impact’, the social media expert clearly stated that the blocking of Donald Trump’s Twitter account occurred much too late. In order to curb the current polarisation of public online discourse, alternative providers that operate under different business models, oriented far more towards public interest and the greater good, are required.

Interview by Christina Janssen, 5.02.2021

impact: Herr Pleil, as a Professor for Online Communication, which roles do you assign to social media in your lectures and research?

Pleil: doctrinal theory focuses primarily on the sets of qualities specific social media use to promote communication between various target groups – of users or staff, for instance. Other important features include recruitment via social media, along with the roles played by influencers, in other words, primarily public relations and marketing. An Online Communication degree course also addresses education via social media and competent use of various media forms. My research into social media focuses more on socio-political aspects, for example, the role played by social media in the spread of populism, in effective dissemination of sustainability theory as well as campaigns run by non-profit organisations. This is a broad spectrum of application, because in the meantime, social media – alongside established, traditional media forms – has adopted a key mantle in establishing connections within the public sphere.

impact: by dint of the current situation, let us focus for the moment on populism. In your opinion as a media expert, could Donald Trump’s rise have been feasible without Twitter?

Pleil: No, not in this way, it would have been more difficult. However, there are certain reciprocal forces at play here, for in addition, Trump profited from the massive active support of such traditional media as Fox News. This combination enabled him to reach a much wider audience than would have been the case via Twitter alone.

impact: Trump was permitted to spread uncensored lies and hate for years via the social networks. Do concerns such as Twitter or Facebook become accomplices of demagogues and chauvinists for the sake of clicks?

Pleil: There is certainly a risk of this. In principle, we have been aware since even the earliest research into the internet that unregulated shared online communication attracts people who behave like trolls. Without prosecution such people keep digging further and further – partly for fun, yet also partly to fulfil base tendencies. The companies are faced with difficult trade-offs, for they must make hard decisions as to when the boundaries of free-speech have been crossed. Twitter and each of the other social media platforms all have their own in-house rules in this regard, and the questions are to what extent they able to apply these effectively, or are even willing to, also – do we feel their measures are appropriate. What exacerbates the situation in the case of Donald Trump is that here we are dealing with a very prominent contemporary figure – a ‘man of the times’. The platforms responded accordingly: we would never permit anyone else to act like this, but the President of the United States is simply in a different category – people need to be able to form their own opinions of his character.

impact: meaning anyone other than Trump would have been blocked much earlier?

Pleil: Yes, probably. Attempts were made to restrain him, by temporarily blocking his account, or by providing additional information along with certain tweets. In contrast to Facebook, Twitter proved to be quite creative in this regard. Some of Trump’s more questionable tweets were flagged and counter arguments to them posted. Or action was taken to ensure that certain tweets couldn’t be forwarded or liked. Twitter is currently experimenting with a fresh approach based on volunteers checking facts.

impact: was the storming of the Capitol entirely necessary before Trump’s account was permanently blocked …?

Pleil: I agree that it was all delayed far too long.

impact: social media has clearly become a powerful factor in our democracies, one which ducks from effective regulation …

Pleil: social media which are familiar to us are commercial private sector-based, which has been tolerated up to now. However, they also perform public services. The social media platforms try to approach valid solutions in tip-toe fashion, yet the basic problem remains: their business models are based on collecting data, selling information and constant growth. Being forced to constantly attract the ever-increasing number of users their model requires puts them under pressure to keep making their platform ever-more attractive.

impact: making them more attractive, does this entail deliberate polarisation, thus generating more clicks?

Pleil: although polarisation isn’t an intrinsic part of their business model, it is nonetheless a logical consequence of this, for social media thrives on as many of us as possible making contact with as many others as possible. However, we are not reasonably capable of actively updating hundreds of contacts. Algorithms are therefore programmed to feed us with tiny, carefully selected portions of the sheer endless stream of information – those deemed the most relevant. Research has often proven that this method frequently leads to highly emotional and polarising topics being given top rankings. In my opinion, the negative issues underlying communication in the public sphere in general have only been worsened since the introduction of these algorithms.

impact: would you say the algorithms filter but they cannot solve the problem of overloading?

Pleil: overloading is a vital issue – we are becoming overwhelmed by information. We have a juxtaposition of extremely different qualities and authors of information, and many people are either unable or unwilling to effectively differentiate between them. For instance media competency: critical analysis and fact-checking as tools need to be far better integrated in the population at large. Some political scientists also describe an additional phenomenon: our representative democracy model stems from the late 19th and 20th centuries, whilst forms of communication are now embedded within the 21st century. This mismatch is one reason fewer and fewer people feel their needs are being addressed and taken seriously, lending emotionalized issues an almost magnetic appeal – as if a boundary to that established can thereby be drawn. So one follows a troll, no matter how daft they are.

impact: this renders it all the more important that social media platforms seriously commence to support our democratic systems. How could they go about doing this?

Pleil: I don’t believe the core problems can be solved by more stringent regulation alone. The growth ideology – of digital neo-liberalism – needs to be firmly challenged, which could possibly work if we had a significantly greater variety of platforms established. Furthermore, information is currently hoarded within individual social networks, which do not communicate with one-another. Users who switch networks are forced to re-establish all of their networked contacts. In technical terms it would be relatively simple to establish interconnectivity and interoperability – as it is with emails, whereby who the individual provider is plays no role. We need alternatives to Facebook and Twitter – smaller scale social networks, more variety and a more heterogeneous field. The next logical step would be to create and establish new business models which are oriented towards the common good. For example, it would be worthwhile discussing the value of public sector or cooperative social networks.

impact: yet if we wish to seriously undermine conspiracy theories and demagogy, we will probably need to dig down a few more levels, for many people are clearly willing to believe absolutely anything put before them. So what do we do?

Pleil: digital education, fact-checking by journalists or independent associations such as Mimikama are all vital. Unfortunately, journalism is currently undergoing a crisis and associations such as Mimikama can barely scrape by financially. I therefore think it is necessary for us to consider to what extent we as a society should invest in the quality of public communications. Flagging of dubious posts – such as those in Trump’s Twitter account – should also be intensified. Furthermore, if anything along the lines of racism, sedition, hate speech or similar is encountered then these must naturally be brought to the attention of law-makers.

impact: the EU has drawn up the Digital Services Act, in an attempt to formulate rules and to force internet platforms to be more responsible for their conduct. In the future, fines will be levied if hateful or violent postings are not rapidly removed from the internet and public domain. Do you think this is reasonable?

Pleil: it is an important move, to ensure that the commercial interests behind such concerns begin to take these issues seriously – especially once they need to set aside funds for such penalties. The important points are establishing firm guidelines and clearly defining reaction times – which then need to be shorter in relation to the size of a platform, for the bigger they are, the bigger the effect an unlawful post can have. This is Brussels’s aim and I find it makes a lot of sense.

impact: on the whole – would the world be a better place without social media?

Pleil: that’s difficult to judge because social media – in global terms as well – fulfils a variety of functions. For political activists and dissidents living in autocracies and dictatorships social media are vital to their survival. In the private sphere they can provide much sought after connectivity. They also provide improved specialist and issue-related networking possibilities. Consider the case of people suffering from rare illnesses, for example, who then find it easier to communicate with one-another via social media. It isn’t my place to offer a judgement in any of these regards. Social media is simply there – and in my opinion, it is up to us to make sure it develops as optimally as possible.

Translation: Paul Comley

Further information:

Website from Prof. Dr. Thomas Pleil: 
Study course Online-Communication: 
Institute for Communication and Media:


Contact details

Christina Janssen
Scientific editor
Tel.: +49.6151.16-30112