Inside the Information Society: Social Media, saint or sinner?

Too much debate about the Information Society is binary. To advocates, anything digital looks good. Others are spooked by impacts that are uncontrolled and unbenign. If we’re serious, we need to be more nuanced. Some reflection on this where social media’s concerned this week; next week, the Internet’s impact on politics.

One newspaper, two stories

Let’s take two stories from the same newspaper, same day – an edition last week of The Guardian, Britain’s left-leaning serious daily newspaper.

On the one hand, here’s page 25: ‘Pakistani women’s fightback starts on the web’ (headlines vary in online editions). Stories of how vulnerable women have been supported by social media communities and used those social media to build coalitions and generate wider recognition of attacks on women’s rights.

But what of this, two pages earlier, on page 23?: ‘Las Vegas survivors under social media siege.’ How America’s hard right has branded the recent Las Vegas massacre ‘a staged fake shooting that was meant to help push gun control policies,’ called the victims ‘actors’, and threatened them that someone will come after them again.

Putting things together…

These two stories reflect alternate visions of what the Internet and social media do or can do.

On the one hand (page 25), they’re (rightly) seen as creating opportunities to challenge threats to rights or democratic freedoms, political or cultural authoritarianism, corruption and venality. When social media were still young, some credited them with responsibility for the Arab Spring (wrongly, in my view; it’s people, not app developers, that are responsible for social change, and the scale of impact that they had in Egypt or Tunisia is much contested). ICT4D literature is replete with theories of change built on the idea that better-informed citizens have more chance of determining how their lives are governed and challenging authoritarianism and aggression.

On the other hand (page 23), the Internet and social media are (just as rightly) seen by many as vehicles for harassment, misogyny and hate. If you doubt the degree of malevolence, intimidation and threats of violence underpinning some people’s experience of social media, hold your breath and take a look at the Twitter feeds of white nationalists, or the misogynist abuse hurled at female members of the British parliament. In recent years, it’s not liberals that have made the most effective use of social media in, say, the United States; it’s right wing activists opposed to everything that liberals stand for.

requires recognising both …

Nighat Dad of Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation captured this duality in the story on The Guardian’s page 25. “The replication of offline violence against women online, including cyber-harassment, abuse and blackmail, makes the internet an embattled resource for feminist activism. … But when I fight for women’s safety online, I fight for their freedom to use the resource to its full potential.”

Maximise the positive, in other words, but also seek to mitigate and minimise the negative. Recognise that victims of online harassment are victims, not collateral damage. And indeed, to use the words of the United Nations, ensure that rights that are protected offline are also protected online.

and that this isn’t binary

The truth, of course, is that social media are no more likely to be positive or negative, benign or malign, liberal or authoritarian than printing, post, the telephone or any other communications medium of the past. New media will be used by people in ways that suit them most, whether they’re anarchists or authoritarians, democrats or demagogues, feminists or misogynists, rights activists or rights abusers, saints or sinners. And none of this is binary: we all behave in ways that are much more complex than binary divides imply.

Social media in themselves, in other words, are neither good nor bad; they’re merely part of a new landscape for expression, a landscape that’s changing as new platforms and new services emerge and as more people go online. We shouldn’t treat the technology as any different from those that went before: shouldn’t burden it with expectations or condemn it out of hand. It’s here for now and for the future, and we should deal with behaviours that take place online as we’ve dealt with behaviours in previous offline media.

But there are important differences as well

That’s not to say that social media’s impacts don’t differ from those of previous media. That’s likely to occur because these new platforms change the parameters in which people can communicate.  They enable more intense communications over distance and with larger, less familiar groups.  They conflate personal communications with more general publication.  They enable greater anonymity (which suits, for instance, both rights advocates and rights abusers).  They encourage immediate comment, with less thought to what is being said, which then becomes permanent and un-erasable.

Some behaviours, in short, become much easier on social media than they used to be. Dealing with those behaviours requires us to develop different responses from those that worked with previous offline media. Two aspects of this, we're learning, are particularly challenging.

Two particular challenges

First, more information doesn’t mean that people become more informed. When commentators first warned about social media and the proliferation of online content exposing people only to content they agreed with rather than content that is more diverse, they were decried as doom-mongers by many in the online industry. Now, the dangers – and reality – of such ‘filter bubbles’ are generally recognised. Content may have become unlimited, but our attention spans have not.

Second, the pace at which content can spread has accelerated greatly, altering the nature of media and their impact on opinion. Things go viral online. This can be positive from a rights perspective (footage of police action against demonstrators in the Arab Spring), neutral (kittens), or negative (fake news disseminated by governments, political or other actors). There’s a risk that this undermines the quality of all content. Conspiracy theorists don’t need to check their facts; journalists and rights activists should always do so and are therefore always running to correct.

Two final thoughts

I’ll finish with two thoughts.

First, those who argue that all content’s equal need to think through what they mean. Net neutrality and freedom of expression are principles affecting how the Internet is run and how people live their lives. They don’t make drunken racist tweets of equal significance or value with, say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Second, there’s nothing about social media that’s permanent. The letter-writing culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was displaced by telephones and then by email. Trains, planes and automobiles made distance less important long before the Internet. Facebook was launched in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Instagram and Snapchat later. Different social media choices are being made by different year-groups within schools, let alone by different generations.

Means of communication and social interaction, in short, have changed many times in many ways. They’ll change again in future. We’ll make a big mistake if we think the social media we have today will be the same in five or ten years’ time. Another reason for focusing on the interaction between human behaviour and technology/services, rather than placing too many expectations, or too many fears, upon technology or services themselves.

Image by Debra used under Creative Commons license.

More about David Souter.

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