Last October 17, 2012 I attended an event called “Is Social Media Good for Democracy” which took place at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto.
As a strong proponent of Open Government and a user of Social Media, I offer an emphatic “yes” to such a question...but, I wasn’t the one on stage. So, going into the event, I wondered whether or not my perspective would change...and here are my findings:
The three participants in the discussion all held three very different mantles. Jesse Hirsh from Metaviews and the Academy of the Impossible was the scholar who put on a clinic on new terminology, controlled despair, and “Reality Checks.”
The core of his argument (as I interpret it) is that Social Media is becoming, what he likes to call, a neo-feudal society where popularity and fame are the new aristocracy. His biggest concern seemed to lean towards the ability for the Internet and Social Media to instigate “lynch mobs” at the drop of a dime, citing examples such as Steph Guthrie as well as Anonymous outing the wrong cyber bully responsible for Amanda Todd’s death.
Lee Rainie from the Pew Research Centre was the methodical statistician with a heart of gold; An eternal optimist that (to me) ended up defending Social Media’s role in our society by painting all of its wonderful potential.
The core of his argument (as I interpret it) was all about participation, which, I like to believe, is the Spirit of a Democracy. There are more opportunities to participate in your society than there’s ever been, and that’s a good thing. While he admits that this can also lead to more misinterpretation, Social Media is the antidote to what he called “pluralistic ignorance.” In other words, much like the Emperor’s New Clothes, Social Media has the uncanny ability to let the public share what they are thinking instead of assuming others aren't really digesting the fact the Emperor is walking around naked.
Steve Paikin, the well-respected journalist, acted as moderator and was his usual self and controlled the conversation (and audience questions) as only he could. His trademark rapier wit was very much present, although, I wished he had taken a more active role in the conversation so that he could shine with all his glory.
Conclusions from the speakers: Social Media is a direct reflection of society, but in a different medium. It is not egalitarian, and requires regulation from the government against those who would take advantage of it, such as unlawful police surveillance and privacy thieves. It places the human potential on a pedestal and gives it a high dosage of steroids; Social Media does not create, it amplifies and gives the public tools to “watch the watchers” but can also be easily abused by evil-doers from all walks of life.
So, have I been subverted into thinking Social Media is NOT good for Democracy? Heck no. It is an awesome environment with all the prospects of a “new borne babe.” Unfortunately, that babe can either become Hitler or Gandhi...that babe can either be drawn into a riot or be the voice of reason amidst the chaos...that babe can either sit on the sidelines, or be a ray of light on a cloudy day (my girl!).
I believe that our generally selfish society (me-first / profit mentality) is based on primal instincts that are counter-evolutionary. Humans got to be at the top of the food chain because of their ability to plan, and empathize...not because they are fierce animals. Otherwise, bears, sharks, and snakes would be running the world.
Oh wait, they are (Bazinga!).
...but, things are slow changing. This can be seen with Bcorps whose purposes are to redefine business success and to solve social/environmental problems
In any case, I like to believe that the Internet is simply an extension of the human evolutionary need to feel connected with others. Should this be true, Social Media, and the Internet in general, is a function of nature and will eventually find its balance...and much like the human animal, will also eventually become more empathetic.
But hey, maybe I’m just seeing the future in rose-coloured glasses.