• Democratic culture thrives on participation, so that ordinary people have the ability to express themselves freely as well as distribute their ideas freely.1 Digital technologies, such as the Internet, social media platforms, and smartphones, have made widespread cultural participation and expression possible like never before. Specific instances form units of cultural expression that add to and build upon layers of meaning that define our society.2 

    The Internet and social media platforms have become our communal gathering space and modern public sphere3 where societal discourse takes place. Public and private discourse intertwines,4 and is transmitted by “organic intellectuals”5— those in the working and middle class that experience everyday life — who create and disperse content from the bottom up, which differs from previous top-down models. User-generated content reflects a more personal regime of truth6 conditioned by larger systems, rather than some foreign narrative pushed down by the power structure and affects relationships between social and political institutions.7

    Up to 88% of Americans consume online media multiple times a day,8 and Facebook has continued as the dominant platform overall, with Instagram usage rising the most since 2016, particularly with those aged 18-24. Capacity for reach is staggering, as worldwide online usage consists of 4.2 Billion users with 3.2 Billion images being shared every day.9 1 out of 3 people on this planet have access to the internet.10

    Because online networks are made up of like-minded people, users feel safe in expressing opinions and empowering engagement.11 In-network messages directly affect self-expression, information seeking, and off-line behavior of millions. Messages influence the user who receives them, as well as the users’ friends, and the friends of their friends.12

     

    Social media acts as a personal portal to communicate thoughts, express ideas and beliefs, and share commonalities. It is often the place where personal identification, engagement and interaction begins—in subgroups of homophiletic people.13 Those subgroups or virtual social networks offer a sense of belonging and create a safe place for expression, empowering an individual to voice their opinion. In a web-based survey comparing shy and non-shy Internet users, perceived online anonymity led to higher comfort levels in voicing opinions rather than in face-to-face interactions.14 A user can easily react to an original artifact by liking, sharing, commenting, tagging, retweeting, following, etc. Those reactions are a form of affective communication that give social media its power.15

    Younger people, in particular, trust user-generated content from friends or online sources, such as Reddit, FB, Instagram, and/or SnapChat more so than mainstream media.16 Additionally, confirmation bias, filter bubbles, and signal boosters or influencers, all aid in massive-scale contagion and greater circulation of affect.17 Governments recognize this potential too, as evidence of questionable geopolitical content played a part in recent French, German, and U.S. elections.18