The power of social media

Published: Sunday | September 25, 2011
Paul Golding
Paul Golding

Paul Golding, Contributor

Social networking is what some information technology academics consider to be a disruptive technology or having disruptive impact, rendering existing products, services and business models obsolete.

Although social media have not yet made any product, service or business model obsolete, the phenomenon is certainly challenging many norms, and its current and future impact is and will be profound on all aspects of life. In particular, social media are supplanting traditional media as news and entertainment outlets. A number of recent events, locally and internationally, have highlighted the possible future legal and political impact and the difficulty that society is having with this particular technology.

The Friday, July 15 edition of The Gleaner, on its front page, questioned whether the widespread popularity of social-networking sites in Jamaica could undermine key elements of the justice system. Using the Khajeel Mais case as reference, legal experts wondered whether the widespread use of Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) could taint a potential jury pool and deny an accused person his constitutional right to a fair trial. In this case, the identity of the up-to-then-unnamed person of interest was widely circulated and discussed on Facebook and BBM.

Viral effect

The director of public prosecutions, Paula Llewellyn, commented that if the name of a suspect is released prior to an identification parade is held, the integrity of the process can be compromised and can “provide a legal basis to totally undermine” a prosecution. There were also rumours of other high-profile persons being involved in the unfortunate shooting. As we all know, rumours are not new; however, social networks add the viral effect to rumours, giving them a wider circulation. As it relates to legal considerations, another recent case further afield is worthy of discussion and contrast.

On June 15, Vancouver Canucks lost in the Stanley Cup finals to Boston Bruins. Vancouver is an intensely passionate ice hockey city; in fact, all of Canada is. As a result of the loss, a post-match riot ensued. Persons with smartphones took photos and videos of rioters looting and smashing cars and posted them on YouTube and Flickr. Many of these pictures and videos were posted with the express intention of identifying illegal or potentially illegal activity.

According to one commentator, this went beyond citizen journalism to engagement in citizen surveillance. The commentator continued: “I don’t think I want to live in a society that turns social media into a form of crowd-sourced surveillance. When social media users embrace Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs as channels, identifying and pursuing criminals, that is exactly what we are moving towards.”

This discussion was part of a blog and it elicited numerous comments both for and against the use of social networks for citizen surveillance. These two cases, one in Jamaica and the other in Canada, highlight the paradox of technology – social media or otherwise – some person will use and view the use of technology in laudable terms, while others will not.

The impact of social networks on politics is even more interesting and paradoxical. Facebook provides a forum where information can be quickly and efficiently published, and this feature takes on particular importance where these forums are absent from day-to-day political life or where individuals’ liberties are curtailed.

We have seen in Egypt and Tunisia where social media were used to circumvent government dominance of the media sector and the restrictive freedom of association laws. Governments in these and other countries, like Iran and China, have restricted or have made attempts to restrict the use of social networks in their domain. These attempts have been met with criticism and virtual self-righteous claims from the West of repression, restriction on freedom of speech, freedom of expression and being undemocratic. Now contrast these events and reactions with the recent riots in Britain.

Media reports have strongly suggested that participants in the recent British riots used social networks, particularly BBM, as their premier method of communicating. They outmanoeuvred the police by using BBM and other social media to tell protesters where the police were and where they should avoid.

Without making any attempt to determine the motivation for the riots, British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to temporarily block social network platforms. Subsequently, on August 24, British officials met with representatives of Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry to discuss ways to limit or restrict the use of social media to combat crime and periods of civil unrest. The governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries engulfed in the Arab Spring did characterise the protesters as rioters and the situation as civil unrest without making any attempt to determine the motivation for the ‘riots’.

Smacks of hypocrisy

Some will argue that the current position of the British government smacks of hypocrisy while others will argue that the government in a ‘democracy’ should use all means to protect civil liberties and prevent crime.

Jamaicans are expecting that there will be a general election next year, and the politicians from both parties have begun to exchange ‘pleasantries’ in anticipation. During the last general election, traditional media platforms such as television, radio and print, coupled with on-the-ground campaigns, were the main means of engaging potential voters. Not so this time around, both political parties will have to use YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other social media in their political campaign.

The recent BBM campaign encouraging citizens to wear black to protest against the Jamaica Public Service Company’s billing system has provided sufficient proof of the power of social media to rally persons around a cause. If social media are referred to as Web 2.0, the use of social media in Jamaica’s general election will be Polytricks 2.0. This should be interesting from several perspectives, including the level of sophistication in the use of the media by the political parties, and the fact that the Broadcasting Commission has no regulatory powers against actual or perceived bias.

Dr Paul Golding is senior lecturer at the School of Computing and Information Technology, University of Technology, Jamaica. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and pgolding@utech.edu.

Source: http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20110925/cleisure/cleisure5.html

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