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.