Trial by Social Media

It isn’t difficult to see why great power and influence are attributed to Social Media. They are even better than the press at ripping reputations to shreds and mobilizing public opinion. Sometimes the power is used for good. How many charities have benefited from the free publicity Social Media can give, for example, or how many individuals have been able to find answers to questions that defeated Google? Unfortunately, we are also familiar with the trial by Social Media phenomenon. Sir Tim Hunt’s idiotic remarks and Rachel Dolezal’s curious self-delusion about her racial background would probably never have made much stir had it not been for the opportunities offered by Social Media. The essentially unpoliced nature of Twitter and Facebook, to name two of the most popular, means that not only were they discussed world-wide, they were also subject to some harsh judgments — and, in the case of Sir Tim, some amusing mickey-taking as well.

The problem with trial by Social Media is that most of us are not in possession of all the facts. We argue and express opinions without being properly informed but don’t follow through the logic of that limitation. It becomes dangerously easy to forget some basic principles of Christian conduct. Everyone has a right to their good name, for example. Imputing base motives or dishonest conduct to another is, if not proven, defamatory. Again, the instant, reactive nature of Social Media means that exchanges can sometimes be sharp, name-calling episodes that leave everyone feeling slightly grubby and the more vulnerable feeling wretched or afraid.

I am a believer in Social Media’s potential for good, but I am increasingly aware that they not only express public opinion but also help shape it. We have gone from seeing Twitter, for instance, as a brilliant way of having concise conversations with others to viewing it as having a role in society analogous to that of our political or judicial institutions. Vox populi, vox Twitterati. But Twitter isn’t God, nor are its users anything but a minority of the population. It is not a substitute for democracy, and the inflated claims we, its users, sometimes make for it are absurd.

I think the time has come for us to reflect more deeply about the role of Social Media in our lives. In the past, I’ve suggested guidelines for their use, but what I have in mind now is slightly different. We need to revisit our purpose in using Social Media and ask ourselves what, if anything, we hope to achieve — and whether we are the right people to achieve it. If we simply want an opportunity to ‘sound off’ to all and sundry about our personal likes and dislikes, we should think through the possible consequences for ourselves and others. If we want dialogue, or an opportunity to give encouragement or reach out to others, well and good; if we want a marketing opportunity, or a channel for some ideology, them, of course, Social Media offer opportunities for that, too. For most of us, most of the time, a more light-hearted approach is all we need. Even so, we must remember that though Social Media can be fun, there’s a deadly serious side as well. It’s the potential deadliness that worries me.

Note: on the subject of Rachel Dolezal, I have been struck by her desire to identify with those she sees as victims. On the language of victims and victimhood, this post may be relevant.

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4 thoughts on “Trial by Social Media”

  1. I am reminded of a confession I gave when I was a lad in 1958 or ’59 where I wanted to make restitution but could not do so directly without revealing my boyhood ‘sin’. My Confessor said “Everyone has a right to their good name…” and that I was not required at the expense of my good name to make restitution and thereafter be known as a thief.

    A number of options were discussed, some more direct than others, but a way was found to make good the evil that I had done. Fortunately, it was not a sin of words but one of deeds and deeds are more easily atoned for and constrained to the act itself. Words have a higher cost and reverberate almost forever.

    Upon what higher principle does this, “Everyone has a right to their good name” rest? Is it because we are Temples of the Holy Spirit and are entitled to be seen as such as I think I was taught or is it something more utilitarian? I don’t recall.

    I do recall, as a teacher, asserting that gossip was an evil and asserting that ‘everyone has a right to their good name’ but it mostly fell upon deaf and incredulous ears, followed by, “But Mr A. we all know she did it.” countered by, “Class, it doesn’t matter. You are not her judge nor jury. Forgive as the Father forgives you and move on.”

    And today, TV happily has programming and channels that are all about gossip and the Twitterati seem more than pleased to pass it along.

    To borrow from Cicero; O Tempora, O Mores.

  2. There is a danger in social media becoming a nasty form of gossip/bullying that has incredible power and speed to spread harm around the globe.
    I think the sounding off should be limited – think (maybe pray?) before you reply/comment to avoid harming others.

    The upside is the power for good/to support people is also huge. The work done by Digitalnun is, as far as I know, unique. Where else could we obtain this very special encouragement and thought provoking dialogue?
    No book/magazine/tv show would do the same. It is not a fault of the medium – it simply amplifies what we do already in an alarming way. Trial by gossip/cruel remarks happens around us all the time. If only we all reflected on your guidelines. They should be taught in schools!

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