Social Media: Wielding Its Double-Edged Sword

During the last year, the focus of The International Cybersecurity Dialogue shifted from bridging the gap between cybersecurity professionals and the policy makers to charting global progress towards ordering the newly identified cyber sphere and its requirements.  Our monthly theme for this October is “Accountability, Responsibility and Innovation” and our first deep dive explores social media and its ramifications in this area. With the help of Sarah Jones, an award-winning all platform journalist, we explored innovation, the future of press and the individual responsibility of each one of us in the spread of fake news.

Social media as innovation

Social media is “a disruptive innovation because while most modes of broadcast communication allow a single source to broadcast a message to a large audience, social media allows the broadcaster to engage with and hear the response of that large audience.”  It is an innovation and it also drives innovation.  To stay on top of an incredibly competitive market, social media platforms must keep reinventing themselves and introducing new features continuously. This is the reason for Facebook Innovation Spotlight and why Google is trying to step up their AI game.  The Silicon Valley investment culture pushes established platforms to keep up with the newly emerging start-ups, that provide something different from the ‘mainstream’ social media. For example, Vimeo’s demographic has a more laid back approach to copyrights while  Whatsapp stresses its end-to-end encryption.  Sarah Jones also pointed to the technological evolution of the audience as a driver of this innovation. According to her, there is still “room for more social media platforms- especially as technology continues to evolve.” However, one has to be careful when launching a new enterprise – Facebook might co-opt their technology into its already existing service.

How Social Media Changed the News

With the ever-rising popularity of social media and with the rising importance in creating and sharing news, it is unquestionable that these platforms had a huge effect in the way we produce and consume news. “Now social media is the source for breaking information – but that doesn’t mean it’s vetted or verified” – Sarah Jones pointed out. With the instant posting, sharing, re-tweeting of articles and news clips, every smartphone is overflowing with information – however, this information is not necessarily the same as news, carefully sorted through by professionals. “News is information that has been vetted verified and includes context” – Sarah Jones explained – “The access to multiple sources of information is an asset because it opens up more modes of communication to more voices and this allows for a more in-depth understanding of what’s really happening in our world. At the same time news leaders still need to go through the same process they would with a face to face interview. Vet and fact check. And I honestly believe news is the backbone of an informed society and therefore an efficient society.”

Disinformation without Names

The anonymity of online presence is, similarly to social media itself, a double-edged sword. Although that anonymity contributes to cyberbullying skyrocketing, “some are more honest and blunt in their views or thoughts allowing one to truly gauge the thoughts and opinions of people on a certain topic or issue.” The question of responsibility in this case it seems to fall on the individuals committing these acts. However, there is still a debate regarding the difference between trolling and cyberbullying and who should be held accountable.

Another danger of anonymity is the spreading of “fake news”, as is in the case of artificially “created” Americans who were allegedly created by Russians in order to influence the election. With the popularisation of concepts such as post-truth and fake news, the question of the responsibility of journalists and the individual posting news clips must the asked. “I think many of us do not use the internet in the most effective way. We often choose to embed ourselves in certain narratives or voices by choosing the accounts we want to follow or hear from. I think it’s important to hear other voices because it helps create a bigger picture which allows for greater depth in understanding. I truly believe that over simplification is a form of misinformation. And a narrow lens can be paralyzing” – she added. “However, I believe what people are calling fake news is truly false messaging or simply propaganda in the digital age. It is not the job of journalists to fight “fake news” – I believe this is an aspect of hybrid warfare that should be handled by ministry of defense, information and foreign affairs.”   The internet never forgets but humans do, and with the forgotten sources of information the thread of accountability becomes dangerously complicated, argued Sarah Jones. On the other hand, one could argue that every time one shares, sends, posts something, they put their reputation on the line.

We shortly discussed the most famous idea of philosopher Marshall McLuhan with Sarah Jones, “The medium is the message.” He chose the lightbulb, as an example for a medium, which “creates an environment by its mere presence.” Similarly, social media basically is “turning on the light you create a space where people can gather that would otherwise be covered in darkness.” Sarah Jones explained. “If you take away how people, groups or powers can weaponize social media – it truly can be a virtual global town square with multiple languages, experiences and opinions providing greater insight into our world as we continue to become more and more interconnected.”

In this virtual global town square, individuals make these decisions.  It is up to each of us what we do in this town square: connect or divide, create or destroy. It is our responsibility to ensure that the interconnectedness of the 21st century brings us closer to each other.

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