Article - Social Media

The advent of social media is of course one of the defining characteristics of our times. It has removed much of the formality and laboriousness that used to be associated with point to multi-point communication.

In the "old days", not that long ago, any effort to communicate with a lot of people at once involved either the apparatus of broadcasting studios or an approach to the newspapers and their editorial teams. Nowadays, by contrast, a few flicks of the wrist are sufficient for messages and images to be shared with hundreds of millions of people in a matter of milli-seconds. Evidently, this has huge advantages, enabling people to engage in direct communication with so little cost and trouble that they are able, even if otherwise powerless, to challenge establishments and raise issues that would otherwise perhaps go unnoticed.

But, like any powerful technology, these new social media also have the capacity to do great harm.

It is a sad fact that a lot of what goes on in the mass communication that occurs through social media is actually very antisocial. A medium that empowers the weak and the vulnerable to reveal uncomfortable truths also provides cranks and bigots with the means of spreading lies and vicious propaganda, sometimes with profound effects for individuals and even for whole societies.

Unfortunately, the current President of the United States, who has displayed something close to genius in using social media as a means of communicating directly with his electorate, also appears to have a tendency to amplify the propaganda put out by some pretty unattractive elements.

I am glad to see politicians from all mainstream parties in the UK making clear their distaste for such uses of the new technology.

But this lamentable episode prompts a wider reflection about the role of filters in our systems of social communication. Western liberal democracies are rightly concerned to avoid any hint of state censorship. But the judgements of editors of programmes and newspapers act as a non-statutory filter-mechanism. Certainly, this has the disadvantage of making it more difficult for unfashionable truths to be communicated than is the case in the rapid-fire and uncontrolled virtual world of the social media. But it also has the advantage of filtering out some, at least, of the bile that can be promulgated without constraint through the new media.

As so often happens in our history, we are discovering the merits of editorial oversight only by watching it gradually disappear.