The promise and the poison of social media

The rapidly proliferating presence of the social media in our lives is transforming how society works – and creating dangers which need to be addressed.

The instantaneous availability of limitless information has great and obvious advantages. It can make people better informed more quickly, lubricate the wheels of commerce so that business is transacted more efficiently, spread important knowledge so that its impact for good is immediate and ranges further, alert the population to scams and dangers, extend friendships beyond narrow circles – and, I have no doubt, my younger generation friends can go on adding to that beneficial list.

But note one all-important point – for every upside there is a downside and the downsides can be devastating. Again my younger friends can list these more comprehensively than I can. But just take one advantage of the new world of super-fast communication – the instantaneous availability of information now at the tips of one’s fingers on the mouse. The downside of this is overload, the cluttering of one’s life with unnecessary information and, increasingly, misinformation. After all, we have limited time – the most precious of all commodities – so the new challenge is how to prevent time being taken over by useless, even harmful, information. How do we prevent our attention space being encroached upon by what is often mind-garbage?

The rest of this column focuses on the threat which social media poses for democracy. Here is a synopsis from a recent article in the Economist of a situation which requires attention in Guyana as much as anywhere.

In a peaceful, thriving democracy nobody gets exactly what he or she wants but everyone broadly has the freedom to lead the life he or she chooses. But without decent accurate information and civility and conciliation societies increasingly resolve their differences by resorting to coercion.

Ideally, the advent of social media should lead to a more enlightened population and therefore a less inflamed politics as accurate information and effortless communication help people get rid of misconceptions, corrupted views, bigotry and lies.

But that ideal has been shattered – perhaps most glaringly in Trumpian America where Facebook has acknowledged that before and after the 2016 election 146 million users may have seen Russian misinformation on its platform, Google’s YouTube has admitted to over 1,000 Russian-linked videos and Twitter to nearly 146,000 such accounts – and this is only the tip of an iceberg of deliberately false, slanted and deeply corrupted information being dispensed in general on social media.

The fact is that social media is becoming best known for spreading poison rather than truth. Instead of imparting wisdom it dispenses carefully selected material which reinforces biases – thereby increasing partisan outrage and aggravating the politics of hatred and contempt. This is what the Economist describes as happening: “Because different sides see different facts, they share no empirical basis for reaching a compromise. Because each side hears time and again that the other lot are good for nothing but lying, bad faith and slander, the system has even less room for empathy. Because people are sucked into a maelstrom of pettiness, scandal and outrage, they lose sight of what matters for the society they share. This tends to discredit the compromises and subtleties of liberal democracy, and to boost the politicians who feed off conspiracy and nativism.”

Certainly, in America – where the King of Twitter holds power and social media reinforces bias and gridlock – that threat to democracy becomes clearer every day. We in Guyana should also be alert to the dangers.

There are remedies. I quote what the Economist has to say on this score:

“The social media companies should adjust their sites to make clearer if a post comes from a friend or a trusted source. They could accompany the sharing of posts with reminders of the harm from misinformation. Bots are often used to amplify political messages. Twitter could disallow the worst – or mark them as such. Most powerfully, they could adapt their algorithms to put clickbait lower down the feed. Because these changes cut against a business-model designed to monopolise attention, they may well have to be imposed by law or by a regulator. Social media are being abused. But, with a will, society can harness them and revive that early dream of enlightenment. The stakes for liberal democracy could hardly be higher.”

This is the sort of new and very important problem in our society that needs to be discussed in Parliament and other public forums.

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