In the last year or two, social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have found themselves increasingly in the spotlight, and not in a good way. Frequently regarded as playing a role in landing an incompetent and/or dangerous man in the White House and subsequently facilitating his division of the American people, these websites have a hard time catching a break.
That trend continued last week with TNB’s editorial questioning whether or not social media might one day, in fact, add the apocalypse to its list of accomplishments.
As with all of Steve Wood’s productions (seriously, all of them), the editorial was thought-provoking and informative. You should definitely read it if you haven’t already – not only because it’s worth a read, but also because I’m about to explain why I disagree with most of it.
The article outlines several of the dangers presented by this type of online media, which happens to be the current news source for millions of Americans. Specifically, the focus is on misleading information and outright disinformation campaigns, taking the forms of memes, out of context videos, and demagoguery from public figures. In the face of these virtual foes, the article postulates, the constitutional republic established by the Founders might have finally met its match.
Indeed, many of the negatives that the article highlights are certainly legitimate to a point. Social media is notoriously a home for fake news, trolls, cyberbullying, and hate mobs. Say the wrong thing at the wrong time, or have the wrong thing at the wrong time attributed to you, and you could easily find yourself, your business, or your home falling victim to any of these. So it’s easy to see where the doubts might come from. But can it really be the end of the world?
I believe it’s not, and here’s why.
First (and I realize this is a fairly common response to any hesitation surrounding new technology), many of the same misgivings about social media can apply and have applied to just about every other advanced form of communication starting with the very written word itself.
In the classical dialogue Phaedrus, for example, Socrates and Plato share concerns about the limitations of writing as a tool for knowledge and gaining insight compared to rigorous debate. Late 17th century philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz worried that the public would seek knowledge and fulfillment from “the horrible mass of books that keeps growing” and would, after exhausting themselves in a fruitless search for truth, “fall back into barbarism.” Anglican priest and essayist Vicesimus Knox lamented that “The boy who can procure a variety of books like Gil Blas, and the Devil upon Two Sticks, will no longer think his Livy, his Sallust, his Homer, or his Virgil pleasing.”
Now obviously if people were apprehensive over books and writing, I’m sure you can imagine there being similar reactions to the rise of the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the television, and other such devices that we consider either commonplace or long since antiquated in our era. And there were.
Again, that’s not to say these concerns are without merit. History is replete with examples of communication being abused.
Some notable examples right quick: in 1835, a sensational series of six articles in The New York Sun falsely attributed to Sir John Herschel were published announcing in specific detail the discovery of life on the moon, including humanoid bats, unicorns, and two-legged beavers. On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles broadcast The War of the Worlds over the radio and caused nationwide panic. On June 7, 1897, reports of Mark Twain’s death were somewhat greatly exaggerated. And, on a more serious note, misled (and drunken) arsonists burned down the house of British loyalist politician and Massachusetts lieutenant governor Thomas Hutchinson in 1765 in protest of the Stamp Act, even though Hutchinson did not even support it.
Yet through all of these, society survived to Tweet another day.
It’s not just information technology; any type of innovation will be met with skepticism, understandably so. Firearms are another frequent recipient of mistrust, especially so-called assault weapons used in high profile incidents such as the shootings in Aurora, Newtown, and Parkland. The various hazards these weapons present to society are hashed out quite often in gun control debates across the United States, where many restrictionists point to the number of annual firearm-related deaths and claim them to be a “clear and present danger” to the public.
But regardless of the validity of any of these arguments, the truth is that technology, whether it be Facebook or an AR-15, is merely a tool, equally as capable of being used by a human for good as for evil.
Put simply, if guns don’t kill people, then social media doesn’t spread fake news. People do.
And just as guns are used for good each year, so is social media – not only on an individual level, but on a collective one as well. If nothing else, we are now better equipped to combat inaccurate or misleading stories thanks to platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and the quick responses and immediate feedback they allow. Compare that to the days, weeks, or months it might have taken to address false reports in the past.
But also, social media has even been used to topple dictatorships worldwide on several occasions, as one study points out:
In Moldova, in 2009, the Communist Party lost power after protests were coordinated via a text message, Facebook messages, and Tweets. In Egypt, in 2011, it took a mere 18 days for citizens to take down a 30-year police state government with the help of Facebook. As one protester in Cairo summed it up, “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” In Tunisia, in 2010-2011, the youth of the country used Facebook and Twitter to share grievances, gain up-to-the-minute information, and fuel a movement that led to a revolution and the removal of Zine EI Abidine Ben Ali.The Effects of Social Media on Democratization
In fact, this is the very reason why free speech is a fundamental element of American society to begin with. It is a check against tyranny.
At its core, social media is simply the exercise of that free speech. Like the right to bear arms, it is and always has been an enemy of autocracy. And like with firearms, the more efficient the speech, the more efficient a safeguard for liberty it becomes.
Of course there is inherent danger present in both of these freedoms, but any freedom can be abused – hence the presumption by the Founders that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”
The truth is that a populace unable to be trusted with social media is also unable to be trusted with any other liberty. And if the people can’t be trusted to govern themselves, then social media can’t destroy the American system because the American system has already failed.
So yes, I think it’s fairly indisputable that social networking platforms present their share of problems, many of which probably aren’t even known about yet.
But when it comes to bringing about the end of the world?
Well…my money’s still on SMOD.