Social Media – the TMI Drink & Think

Social Media – the TMI Drink & Think

TMI’s Drink & Think was a resounding success. With some 80 people attending and Ho Kwon Ping as Star Guest, comments and discussion were fast and sometimes furious. The subject: “Social Media promote democracy. How can they be accountable and responsible?” As usual, the Drink & Think Soiree was held under Chatham House Rule. The following summary of the points raised does not therefore attribute them to individuals.

The good intent of Net and Social Media is to give voice to, and provide a level playing field for, the powerless – a fundamental value of democracy. They have succeeded, perhaps too well. Voluntary in nature, social media assume messages which resonate among those with shared values and beliefs. They create online communities which potentially clash based on a diversity of shared values, beliefs and assumptions. This so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ plays out in the virtual world with the enabling technology posing challenges of both speed and global reach, making effective control by state, social groups and individuals impossible.

The enabling technology by itself is amoral and can be used well or badly. The innocent banter of cyber-neighbourly gossip can turn to aggressive calumny and detraction and even be a conduit for anarchist and terrorist activity. The recent and rapid development of these tools has already led to abuse, hence the need to contemplate control and accountability of what is said. Rapid change usually leaves a wake of seemingly insoluble ethical problems.

Self-policing – Amazon’s buyers rating sellers and TripAdvisor’s consumers rating their experiences with hotels and restaurants – work on the assumption that there is common interest and both parties, buyers and sellers, consumers and owners, will benefit from the exchange, improving service standards for the rest of the world.

It is different when values clash and one community aims to dominate and / or destroy the other. When this happens, the heavy hand of legislation kicks in potentially unreasonably restricting free speech. Platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter face the dilemma of intervention. Should they be held accountable for policing and taking down sites or are they simply part of the process of democratization, giving voice to minority communities?

The root causes – voiced by sometimes excessively vehement rhetoric – are the stuff of the current world revolution taking place. From trenchant migrants to ISIS terrorists there are conditions, usually real, sometimes only imagined, that find expression in the social media as well as in the marches and the bombs. But sadly sympathy for the oppressed can all too easily turn to anger for the actions taken in the name of redress.

We do not let babies play with hedge trimmers; the innocent and untrained must be somewhat protected from the consequences of misused media. The advertising industry had to come to terms with this forty years ago. It should not be beyond the wit of the collective talents of those running the social media to do so today.

Since education is the solution to poor use of tools, parents have a special responsibility, as the primary educators of their offspring, to see that the young understand the consequences of abuse for themselves and for society generally. Schools, too, need to help students critically discern valid and reliable information from anti-societal rants.

The social contract has become too vague and needs renegotiating. That means all who raise, educate, employ, mentor and coach have an ongoing responsibility to help promulgate this social contract.

As part of it we need to understand and embrace groups that are socially alienated. Only then will the tools of fast, free speech be used for good.

Only then will the social media become truly socially valuable.