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The double-edged sword of social media

Jul 22,2018 - Last updated at Jul 22,2018

One of the most far-reaching achievements of social media was to take whistleblowing to a new dimension.

In the past, the best protection of the corrupt was that a whistleblower, even armed with incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing, could only reach very few people, most of whom did not want or dare to listen. The media, whether controlled by governments or business interests, needed to be dragged on their backs kicking and screaming to carry such a story. 

Today, by contrast, a whistleblower only needs a cellphone camera and an Internet connection to broadcast such evidence to millions of users. The effortlessness of such communication seemed to promise more enlightened politics, as accurate information helped good people drive out corruption, bigotry and lies.

But did it? What happens when corruption, bigotry and lies are exposed? 

There were instances, even before social media, when exposure ruined the careers of the corrupt. But most of the time, exposure causes a minor hiccup after which business continues as usual. When accused of lying about his sexual shenanigans, Bill Clinton answered that there was uncertainty regarding the definition of the terms “intercourse” and “is”. He then went on to live happily ever after. 

With more serious revelations, such as WikiLeaks, governments who preach good governance and freedom of speech rallied together and pointed the finger of scorn not at the wrongdoers, but at those who exposed them. 

Clearly, society resists being informed of wrongdoing, possibly because of the most fundamental human instinct: the fight or flight instinct that is wired in the human brain. People react defensively and angrily when contradicted, no matter how politely this is done. 

In politics, supporters of populist leaders, grow more intransigent in their admiration of their idol when given evidence that his policies were or are irrational, absurd and downright disastrous. In the Arab world, for instance, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Saddam Hussein continue to be regarded as great leaders even though they failed in virtually every one of their undertakings. In the US, President Donald Trump enjoys a similar following among his supporters. American liberals may be wasting their time showing more and more evidence that he epitomises the exact opposite of everything that is decent about America.  

Social media, unfortunately, reinforce this tendency.  Segregated in like-minded echo rooms, people see different facts. Hence they share no empirical basis for reaching a compromise.  

More dangerously, social media erode the need for political debate and compromise, which are essential for liberal democracy. 

Users of social media may or may not know that data is constantly collected about them to create algorithms that determine what catches their eye and what they share. Anyone who seeks to shape public opinion can use these algorithms to tailor messages that people find irresistible. 

So, are the social media an asset or a threat? The answer is both. Social media can certainly strengthen the Orwellian Big Brother, but they can also be harnessed to revive that early dream of enlightenment. We have to choose.


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