With the media under attack in many parts of Latin America, social media is increasingly seen as providing a new opportunity to promote democracy. But can it live up to those hopes? Historically, Latin American ewspapers, magazines and broad- cast outlets have been dominated by large media companies that of- ten operate in collusion with gov- ernments. At the same time, there is a rich tradition of grassroots media and investigative journal- ism. The consolidation of democ- racy in the past few decades has trengthened freedom of the press, but threats continue to come from both state and nonstate actors. The challenges are well-known. The governments of Venezuela and Ecuador continue to wield power over media structures, using influ- ence, privileged access to informa- tion and even state advertising to favor press supporters and pun- ish press critics. At the same time, the influence of dominant busi- ness groups in key economic sec- tors has often skewed coverage in countries like Chile, the Domini- can Republic and Peru, where crit- ics have raised concerns about the influence of industrial interests in the news media. Elsewhere in the region, public broadcasting me- dia remain anemic, and publicly owned broadcasting stations of- ten operate according to personal and partisan criteria rather than public service principles. Atthe most extreme, the press in parts of Mexico and Central Amer- ica has been muzzled by violence. Armed gangs and drug cartels in- timidate and murder journalists with impunity. The expansion of digital technologies and social media— both in their use and penetration into the population—is seen by many as a tool to boost freedom of expression and strengthen pluralism and critical reporting. In Mexico and Central America, citizens must rely on social media for the latest information on attacks and personal safety. As a result, observers hail so- cial media networking tools like Facebook and Twitter as saviors to address entrenched problems for freedom of expression. But can these new tools really meet all the democratic expectations placed on them? DIGITAL MEDIA AND EMOCRACY The democratic potential of digital technologies and so- cial platforms lies in their interactive, decentralized, partic- ipatory, and open-network design. Barriers to access are relatively low as the digital divide gradually nar- rows and smartphones become more affordable and widely used.
45 Americas Quarterly WINTER 2012