Friday, July 20, 2012

Social media's pros and cons

A large part of the unofficial election campaign is being conducted through social media. Talk radio, Facebook, online news sites and blogs, for example, are now bastions of extended commentary and no doubt an important component of a more participatory democracy in the 21st century. There are some challenges with social media, however, that do impact on the nature and extent of our debates. And it is worth reflecting on these, if only to better appreciate some of the limits these media run up against. 

The first and most obvious limitation is that social media have become the vessel of such highly polarised ‘debate’ that the middle is oftentimes left out. The champions on either side convey their message with tunnel-like and unrelenting enthusiasm — and they take no prisoners. The middle is effectively silenced since their entry onto the political battlefield is viewed sceptically and any comment made is assessed, in the first instance, to detect which side they are on. Claims they are not party affiliated are more likely than not to fall on deaf or unsympathetic ears. 

A second limitation is that social media is truly the domain where fact and fiction merge. A largely unregulated environment where almost anyone can say almost anything the truth often falls victim to someone’s own political agenda. Saying something often and saying it passionately does not make it accurate and we have simply seen numerous examples of this over the years. With social media the misrepresentations of fact multiplies easily and quickly. It would be an interesting exercise to document weekly the fiction represented as fact. 

With social media, people for some reason seem to have a greater penchant for descending into the personal attack — with a plethora of irrelevant, racist, misogynist, xenophobic utterances. Some are protected under the blanket of anonymity and thus feel empowered to be as vile and as obnoxious as possible. They are cowards who deserved to be ignored; unfortunately, some of us take the bait. On this front I heed the advice of my paternal grandfather, W G Brown, who during my teen years, repeatedly and passionately told me and my siblings — in words beyond the PG rating of this medium — not to give such comments value. 

Social media also lends itself to easy manipulation by a coordinated force. With anonymity, false names and a bit of work one can greatly influence or shape any debate. Further, it seems quite clear that there are online and talk radio campaigns with particular political thrusts attempting to be presented as the collective will of a politically engaged public. Not so. A consequence of all this is a greater level of scepticism and for some, disengagement from the political process altogether.

One outcome of these four limits of social media is that we engage less in substantive debates about what really matters: the policies, programmes and visions of the respective political parties. What matters is what the current government has done, is doing and promises to do. What matters is what the opposition parties critiques of government are and what they intend to do if elected government. 

Social media are cheap to use, easy to access and have truly democratised the participatory process. When we can better shape this medium to become a more powerful vehicle for debate, thoughtful reflection and a focus on the political issues that matter to the real experiences to voters and all other residents then we will have made some real progress.

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