A great Mashable post lists, as the post title has it, “5 Insightful Talks on Social Media”–all from TED.
As elsewhere, the talks include intriguing and promising illustrations of the ways social media have been used for good, whether by facilitating communication between family members or by enabling solutions to problems like earthquakes or excessive whaling.
Also introduced were ways social media use has been controlled (or attempted to be controlled). Schools and employers fine people for texting and iPhone use in an effort to keep people focused on task. Municipalities or states prohibit the use of portable devices used for social media (among other things) in an effort to decrease car accidents.
Some governments like China have restricted or attempted to restrict social media use in an effort to control news potentially embarrassing to the respective government or to cut off objectionable content like porn and drug traffic, or perhaps to stifle foreign competition or time-wasting entertainment.
Consensus opinion in the liberal west (as elsewhere) has probably been favorable on the whole toward the new internet-based social media boom, on balance probably for various good reasons. Vices have been brought to the light of day. Solutions (whether charitable or business-related) have been brought to the place where the need was. Education has taken place. Popular opinion galvanizes action.
What I would like to suggest is that there may be a downside to the social media boom which I have not seen discussed. I take my cue, oddly enough, from James Madison’s reaction to democracy and from the fact that social media in some ways mimics pure democracy.
Madison, with many of the influential founders of American republic, viewed democracy with deep suspicion. As the tyranny of the few could be fomented on the governed, so the democratic majority could become a vehicle for oppressing the minority. Sometimes, the majority is wrong.
Translating to social media, what might happen during bitter conflict at war where news of somebody’s purported treason got out to various social media outlets? Remember that “the first casualty of war is truth.” And declared war need not be the only dangerous situation. During time of social unrest, what might a social media majority foment upon those of a disfavored minority opinion?
Possibly on a more benign level, slander and libel may spread like a virus while the boring facts don’t even catch our attention. Social media can kill business rightly or wrongly as well as make it grow.
In popular social media, where is accountability when this becomes a problem? Everybody becomes a publisher and a broadcaster. Majority opinion rules. No wonder some individual sites (like forums) prohibit and monitor negative comment. No wonder some helpful backtracking has taken place on a popular level.
Here I will only reiterate that mass social mood drives bull and bear markets. In the forthcoming greater bear market (such is my view), prevailing negative emotions will negatively affect social media use, putting greater pressure than hitherto on questions of social media control and civil liberty.