Six Theses on Social Media II: More at Last

A couple of weeks have passed without my getting back to the blog. Probably a characteristic piece of procrastination, so apologies for anyone who was expecting more on the social media and connectivity sooner.

In my overview of this topic I prefigured that idea that we can see at least six themes in the way people write about the social media and the impact of greater connectivity through smartphones and other handheld devices, the internet, etc. These 6 aspects arise essentially by thinking about how the impact might revisit modalities of the past, affect the present or shape the future, in each case with a negative or a positive slant. I started with revisiting positive elements of the past so now I’ll look at negative ones.

If we think of social life in the moderately distant past—let us say three or four hundred years ago—it is hard not to notice that life then seems, to a modern gaze, ignorant and irrational. Many of the things we take for granted today ranging from a state model of centralised control, criminal justice and peace keeping through to medical knowledge used to promote health and the public good seem to be obvious ‘progress’ over witch trials or lynching on the one hand or bleeding or blistering on the other.

In part, such progress as these have brought (and my view is that there is progress, even if I don’t want to buy into the notion that all history is progress) has arisen because the power of central governments has been linked to a wide range of social institutions and knowledge systems. To take a few simple examples, governments have successfully claimed the monopoly of legitimate violence internally (police, courts, etc.) and externally (military) to their boundaries. They have funded and supported things like health systems while using their legal powers to support the centralisation of professions along with supporting mechanisms for setting standards—for better or worse, quacks and charlatans were steadily marginalised. Information about science was communicated both by government supported education systems and through mass media of communications that were often largely government funded and/or regulated. The BBC in the UK is a particularly good example of this—between the 1920s and the advent of commercial TV in the 1960s, the BBC offered a single authoritative voice which communicated to a great extent what the agreed truth of the day was seen to be.

The reasons why this has changed are many and complex. Increased connectivity and the rise of the social media are, in some senses, latecomers to the tide of change. Nonetheless, there is a clear sense—and an expressed concern—that these support a resurgence of elements of ignorance, prejudice and irrationalism that share much with the past. Let me briefly give four examples, all of which share the same underlying mechanism, which is the way that groups with views that challenge the rational, ‘scientific’ and legal orthodoxy can find like minded fellows with whom to share their ideas and act for mutual support and reinforcement. My four examples are:

  1. The rise of irrational counter theories around disease. As a striking example, consider the rise of the anti-immunisation groups[1].  With no reputable science to support these ideas, and the only ‘study’ that seemed to offer support utterly discredited, there is still a rising tide of people who are opposed to immunising their children against childhood diseases like the measles and whooping cough. Self-reinforcing ‘dialogues’ of collective paranoia are hardly new—the Salem witch trials provide evidence enough of that. But today these are sustained by the most modern of technologies which, let me be blunt, allow the crazies to talk to one another and insulate themselves from any sensible rebuttals. This is a truly serious issue because not only do they put their own children at risk but, as immunisation rates fall, they threaten the health of everyone else’s children too—below a certain level, contagion can build itself into epidemic proportions and no-one should imagine that these diseases are trivial[2].
  2. The support of religious fundamentalism.  This runs across a wide range of religions. Whether it is an Islamic extremist group who preach Jihad and ignore the advice of most of the clerics in their faith in preference to the firebrands or Christians peddling more (literal biblical readings) or less (intelligent (sic) design) theories of the world one may be sure that there is almost always another crazy out there who you can find to share and boost your views.
  3. Racism and Nazism. Do you want to tout racial supremacy or race hate? Would you like to extol the wonderful contributions of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen to the world? Shall we all sit around and explain why the Holocaust is a Jewish lie? Well, don’t worry—a quick squizz around with a search engine and the odd networking site will find you some folks to play with. And while none of this is remotely a creation of the internet or high levels of connectivity (we should give thanks that Goebbels was not on Facebook!) it is clear that these technologies catalyse these groups.
  4. Hue and cry: Let’s all get a lynch mob going.  Perhaps the most direct impact of new technologies in revisiting the past lies not in enhancing existing modalities (the KKK were well established before Facebook!) but in creating quite new ways of doing old things. I think especially of the way that, in the wake of the Boston marathon bombing, a sort of mob response broke out across the internet. Among others, a missing Boston student, Sunil Tripathi was ‘identified’ as a suspect and his identity plastered across the globe, see . As this report notes:

… it appears that speculation started on the social news site Reddit. Several of those in the US who claimed on the forum last Thursday evening local time that he was the man wanted by police, said his name had come up in conversations between officers on the police scanner.

One woman claimed she had gone to Radnor high school with Mr Tripathi and that images provided by police “looked like him” while Kevin Michael, a cameraman with a Hartford affiliate of the CBS television network said on Twitter: “BPD scanner has identified the names: Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi.”

This story has a tragic end, though fortunately not because of this mis-identification: Tripathi’s body was later found floating in the river, likely as a result of depression-related suicide. It is, however, not hard to imagine that an equally tragic end might have arrived directly through this activity—a sort of public rather than private version of cyber-bullying[3].

Clearly, these examples—and one can find many more—point to the idea that, far from being a universal force for good, a highly connected world in which people selectively listen to and talk with only those who agree in a sort of echo chamber effect (see e.g. ) can actually be counter-productive. While I would never make this case in order to argue against new technologies and new media it would be unwise not to pay attention to this.


[1] For example, New Scientist collectively reviewed three books on this topic in Jan. 2011: Seth Mnookin The Panic Virus: A true story of medicine, science, and fear, Simon & Schuster;  Paul Offit Deadly Choices: How the anti-vaccine movement threatens us all , Basic Books; Robert Goldberg Tabloid Medicine: How the internet is being used to hijack medical science for fear and profit, Kaplan

[2] Nearly 30 years ago, my elder daughter and her class mates went through the trauma of seeing a child slowly die from a measles related disease. Her mother, Gay Davidson, is remembered at which includes this sentence: After the tragic death in 1984 of her second daughter, Kiri Davidson, at the age of 13 of sub-acute sclerosing panencephalitis she became a prominent public campaigner for immunization against measles.

[3] I will return to this in a later blog, because there is an argument that the type of activity that failed (searching via Reddit, etc.) actually has potential, done differently and better, to be a force for good rather than evil.


About stephenmugford

Once a sociologist (1970-1997) then a consultant who reads a lot in psychology, cognitive science, complexity, etc and wanders along paths from one topic to another.
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