Sub-theme 67: Social Media and the Collective Destruction of Social Reality at a Crossroad: What is Left of Social Media as a Public Agora? -> HYBRID sub-theme!

Itziar Castelló Molina
City; University of London, United Kingdom
Elanor Colleoni
IULM University, Italy
Andreas Georg Scherer
University of Zurich, Switzerland

Call for Papers

During the past decades information and communication technologies made tremendous progress. In the course of this development, social media were described as an emerging global public sphere (Castells 2008, Etter, Ravasi & Colleoni 2019), a new ‘agora’ for collective decisions with the beneficial effects for people and planet of creating new spaces for deliberation, providing the opportunity to freely participate in social exchange (Dahlgreen 2005, Castelló, Etter & Nielsen 2016, Glozer, Caruana & Hibbert 2019), facilitating more inclusive and informed debates on grand challenges (e.g., climate change, migrations, pandemics) (Ferraro, Etzion & Gehman 2015; George, Howard-Grenville, Joshi & Tihanyi 2016), and, as a result, improving democracy and collective decision making (Bennett 2003).
Yet, the initial promises of enhancing democracy and deliberation that dominated the first decade of the digital space’s growth have taken a decidedly pessimistic turn. Far from establishing a new global inclusive public sphere, social media platforms have turned into a place full of hate speech (Fortuna & Nunes 2018), fake news (Knight & Tsoukas 2019), conspiracy theories (Halford 2022, Uscinski & Parent 2014), exacerbating differences and societal divisions, often leading to the polarization of viewpoints (Sabadoz & Singer 2017, Dawkins 2019, Winkler, Etter & Castello 2020).
What previously was described as a space for collective construction of social reality and democratic participation for public decision making based on reason and argument (Habermas 2003), is becoming a space of destruction, polarization, and social divide potentially leading to an erosion of democratic institutions and disintegration of society (Scherer, Neesham, Schoeneborn & Scholz 2023; Scherer & Neesham 2022, Zuboff 2022).
Conceiving this phenomenon as a collective destruction of social reality (in reference to Berger & Luckmann, 1996 book “The social construction of reality”) refers to the collective process by which society exists as both objective and subjective reality, emerging from an ongoing dialectical process. Consequently, the “destruction of reality” stresses how the validity and legitimacy of the institutions in democratic society, once taken for granted, are increasingly questioned, attacked, and negated (Furnari, Hudson & Reinecke, 2021), through a constitutive communication process that organize this destruction.
How to understand this space for collective destruction of social reality is a question worth endeavoring. It relates to the nature and the conforming antecedents of social media platforms and the way they influence social exchange and public communication. Scholars are starting to describe social media platforms as a space for conflict and agonism (Dawkins 2019, Castelló & Lopez-Berzosa 2021) with a ‘dark’ turn (Trittin-Ulbrich, Scherer & Munro 2020, Etter & Albu 2021). A space where most democratic features of social media are being weaponized to organise immaturity (Scherer, Neesham, Schoeneborn & Scholz 2023, Scherer & Neesham 2022, Harracá, Castelló & Gawer 2022), endangering society and democracy itself (Susskind 2022) and reducing rather than enhancing the control of society over firm actions (Barnett, Henriques & Husted 2020).
The collective destruction of social reality through social media appeals to processes of engagement and collective participation increasingly based on echo chambers (Colleoni, Rozza & Arvidsson 2014), underpinned by emotions (Voronov 2014, Toubiana & Zietsma 2017), symbols (Barberá-Tomás, Castelló, de Bakker & Zietsma 2019) or empty signifiers (Colleoni, Illia & Zyglidopoulos 2021), driven by algorithmic dynamics (Airoldi 2021), that constitute new forms of politics and power resembling plebiscitary populism rather than deliberative democracy (Gerbaudo 2022).
The collective destruction of social reality also points at the mechanisms of power and the power imbalances of the different actors taking part in the social media platforms (Cutolo & Kenney 2021; Harraca, Castello & Gawer 2022). Power mechanisms have been related to the characteristics of algorithmic management leading to a model of surveillance capitalism (Zuboff 2022). Also, to how power emerges through institutional processes and mechanisms (Hudson, Okhuysen & Creed 2015), such as collective framing (Furnari 2018, Reinecke &. Ansari 2021) or bottom-up processes of practice emergence (Smets, Aristidou & Whittington 2017). Finally, power mechanisms are increasingly associated with governance structures that nurture them (Flyverbom, Deibert & Matten 2019).
In this sub-theme, we invite papers that pay attention to the antecedents, processes, and mechanisms of social media platforms, but also to the conditions and consequences underlying the thrive and the decline of the power of social media. We are interested in unveiling the “true” nature of social media platforms and whether they are inherently destructive and will not improve unless their abolition in their current form (Zuboff 2022), or they are neither good or evil, and can be controlled and regulated outlying the ethical foundations of a new social contract (Gerbaudo 2022). We call for a better understanding of the conditions under which social media platforms might lead to the degeneration or the facilitation of reasonable public debate (Habermas 2021). For example, what conditions for communicative freedom might promote sustained joint (or collective) action (Cohen & Fung 2021). More specifically, we invite papers that expand the frontiers of research and address (but are not necessarily limited to) the following broad research questions and puzzles:

  • What are the antecedents, processes, and mechanisms underlying the collective destruction of social reality and the decline of deliberative public sphere?

  • How do social media platforms shape contemporary political phenomena such as the diffusion of fake news, conspiracy theories, populism, and authoritarianism? In what ways are engagements online different from offline manifestations of similar phenomena in the past?

  • What is the role of manipulating or engaging social emotions, symbols, and cultural scripts in constructing and destructing social realities or exercising or resisting power?

  • Which construct does capture the new forms of digital collective participation, i.e. crowds, audiences, publics?    

  • What is the relationship between social media and other digital spaces with other forms of power and institutions?

  • How do digital infrastructures based on algorithmic management create new cultural habitus, cultural classifications, and new normalcy? What are the consequences for individuals and organizations?

  • What organizing and collective action efforts can restore trust in institutions and reconstruct realities in relation to global challenges?

  • What governance structures is needed to protect individuals and institutions and counteract fake news, conspiracy theories, populism, and authoritarianism?

  • What is the future of social media platforms and how they might evolve?

We advocate methodological and theoretical pluralism, welcoming both empirical and conceptual papers that use any qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods, and any theoretical or philosophical perspective.


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  • Castelló, I. & D. Lopez-Berzosa (2021). "Affects in Online Stakeholder Engagement: A Dissensus Perspective." Business Ethics Quarterly. Online first: 1-36.
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  • Cutolo, D. & M. Kenney (2021). "Platform-Dependent Entrepreneurs: Power Asymmetries, Risks, and Strategies in the Platform Economy." Academy of Management Perspectives 35(4): 584-605.
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  • Dawkins, C. E. (2019). "An Agonistic Notion of Political CSR: Melding Activism and Deliberation." Journal of Business Ethics 170 (1): 5-19.
  • Etter, M. & Albu O. B. (2021). "Activists in the Dark: Social Media Algorithms and Collective Action in Two Social Movement Organizations." Organization 28(1): 68–91.
  • Etter, M., Ravasi, D. & Colleoni, E. (2019). "Social Media and the Formation of Organizational Reputation." Academy of Management Review 44(1): 28-52.
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  • Flyverbom, M., Deibert, R. & Matten, D. (2019). "The Governance of Digital Technology, Big Data, and the Internet: New Roles and Responsibilities for Business." Business & Society 58(1): 3–19.
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  • Furnari, S. (2018). "When does an issue trigger change in a field? A comparative approach to issue frames, field structures and types of field change." Human Relations 71(3): 321–348.
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  • Gerbaudo, P. (2022). “Theorizing Reactive Democracy: The Social Media Public Sphere, Online Crowds, and the Plebiscitary Logic of Online Reactions.” Democratic Theory 9(2): 1-19.
  • Glozer, S., Caruana, R & Hibbert, S. A. (2019). "The never-ending story: Discursive legitimation in social media dialogue." Organization Studies 40(5): 625-650.
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  • Harracá, M., Castello, I. & Gawer, A. (2022). "How digital platforms organize immaturity: a socio-symbolic framework of platform power." Business Ethics Quarterly, accepted,
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  • Trittin-Ulbrich, H., Scherer, A. G. & Munro, I. (2020). "Exploring the dark and unexpected sides of digitalization: Toward a critical agenda." Organization 28(1): 8-25.
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  • Zuboff, S. (2022). "Surveillance Capitalism or Democracy? The Death Match of Institutional Orders and the Politics of Knowledge in Our Information Civilization." Organization Theory 3: 1-79.
Itziar Castelló Molina is Reader at Bayes Business School, City, University of London, United Kingdom. His research is situated in the intersection between global challenges, social media engagement and emotions, and he is also interested in power dynamics and governance. Itziar has published in journals such as ‘Academy of Management Journal’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, ‘Research Policy’, and ‘Business Ethics Quarterly’, among others.
Elanor Colleoni is Assistant Professor at IULM University, Milan, Italy. Her work lies at the intersection of social evaluations, organizational legitimacy, and communication. Elanor has published several academic articles on social evaluation in digital media in leading management journals, such as ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Business & Society’, and ‘Journal of Communication’, among others.
Andreas Georg Scherer is Professor of Business Administration at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He studies the ethical challenges of organizations in a changing socio-technological environment characterized by (anti-)globalization, digitalization, political contestation, and erosion of democratic institutions. His work has appeared in ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Administrative Science Quarterly’, ‘Business Ethics Quarterly’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, ‘Organization’, ‘Organization Science’, and ‘Organization Studies’, among others.