When I write about the role of social media and anti-corruption I typically get a couple of types of responses.
Group 1. Social Media is Chaos
This group contains people who are concerned about the undisciplined and seemingly ungovernable nature of social media. It is, in the view of some of my colleagues, a dangerous environment where lies and mean spirited comments can take on a life of their own and the originators of the comments are not accountable for the damage they may cause.
A common thread among this group seems to be a belief that the “established media,” supported by publishers and editors, demand some level of integrity from their trained professional journalists.
Social media is more like an endless stream of letters to the editor.
Or as one colleague has said in the LinkedIn Group, MojaLink – Non Profit & Philanthropy Jobs:
“Have you ever read the public comments posted in newspapers? I often find the comments filled with personal opinions, jealousy, ignorance and racism. Look at any government Inspector General web sites and review how many cases are reported and how many are founded. Go to schools and ask children about bullying on web sites.
It constantly amazes me how ugly, deceitful and vengeful people can be when they don’t have face to face or professional accountability.”
Social media can work (example: Capitolfax.com), but at this time I find more character assassination than I do truthful requests for answers, discussions and accountability.”
Group 2: Social Media is the Last Hope of Free Speech
People in this group tend toward welcoming social media, while acknowledging the evils briefly described in Group 1. They tend to be concerned that Ted Turner’s observation means we are being guided in our thinking. It is better, in their view, to have more discussion, acknowledging that some of it will be dross, to increase the odds that the group may glean bits of the truth of a situation and reach their own conclusions.
Turkey’s Prime Minister attempted to shut down twitter because he was concerned that it was merely a tool to spread lies about his involvement with corrupt activities. Indeed, there probably were lies told about his involvement in corruption. And there was probably some truth as well.
Attempting to shut down communication merely confirmed, in the minds of many, that the truth was damning enough that he didn’t want it repeated.
Well now, attempting to shut down public discussion in social media didn’t work out too well for him – just as it wouldn’t have worked to tell people that it’s illegal to discuss such things in coffee shops and grocery stores.
While it’s difficult to respond to an avalanche of mean-spirited public attacks, a rational approach is to address it in some fashion to take some of the energy out of the discussion.
President Obama did as much when the White House released information about his birth certificate. While there continue to be people complaining about a conspiracy, most people have dropped the issue, satisfied enough with the information released.
An Undisciplined Mob?
Is social media an undisciplined mob? Well, perhaps to some degree. Personally, I am not sure if it is any more undisciplined than a Neighborhood Association.
However, there is some research to indicate that there is some level of self-policing that goes on. Social media researchers in California have found that positive Facebook posts then to travel further than “Miserable” updates. Thus, just like at the grocery store and coffee shop (or neighborhood association meeting) negativity is handled by groups by simply shifting attention.
Also interesting is research by Sunstein and Hastie, evaluating the decision-making quality of groups. Entitled: Garbage In. Garbage Out, the paper examines the macro impacts created by micro group behaviors, such as a hesitance to share information that isn’t lined up with the “group-think.” Definitely worth reading.
Social media for all its faults permits people to truly speak up with less fear of being punished for disagreement with the group.
As a tool in fostering anti-corruption, social media has promise. It is only where people can hide their behavior that corruption can flourish. Social media casts a bit more light in the dark corners where corruption can create its devastating impact on the poor.
Thus, while there are benefits to having an undisciplined mob sharing information, it clearly requires more personal responsibility from each of us to distinguish the glimmers of truth from the dross.
Whether we like it or hate it, social media will not be disappearing anytime soon, and we’ll have to find ways to manage the quality and flow of information to meet our individual interests and needs.
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