Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Ugly Future of Social Media

Like most new innovations that encompass both social constructs and technology, social media is finally under attack by governments and organizations, above and beyond taking your money so that you can grow fake crops.

This happens every so often; we can see it in the "violent video game" controversy last decade, and we see it on a regular basis when it comes to movies, television, comic books, and--often overlooked--computerized workplace culture changes. It's not always entertainment that gets overly scrutinized, though it is often the easiest target.

It was bound to happen with social media, and it looks like traction has been made for governments to start assessing blame. Sure, social media has long been criticized for privacy concerns and--in the criminal sphere--online predators. While it certainly made things a lot easier, it isn't new, and so while a lot of bluster has been expelled over it, there really hasn't been much by way of government-mandated change.

It looks like it will start, now.

The first warning rocket was the decision by the Philadelphia mayor to institute a curfew to stave off flash mobs. Of course, these aren't flash mobs in the sense that people will be dancing to some shitty 80's song and someone gets proposed to at the end. The media has simply latched on to the phrase "flash mob" because it just sounds violent. The attacks in Philadelphia, alas, do resemble the flash mobs in their formation: social media is used to alert all participants to gather in one place, where they gang up on people in grand acts of violence. Thankfully, the mayor is resorting to using the usual (if ineffective) means of combating mob violence, and while he mentioned social media as a tool, he didn't outright ban anything--nor, really, could he.

Not so much with David Cameron, who recently called Twitter, Facebook, and (for some reason) Research In Motion (i.e., Blackberry) in to discuss how to curb the use of their services for the purposes of violence.* (This was, of course, prompted by the riots in north London.) The intention is to stop people intending to start violence from organizing via these avenues, presumably by tagging keywords or profiles and prevent the communications from going through.

The issue--as most issues--is sticky, complication, and fraught with emotion and bad ideas. Should social media be set under the same standards as, say, a newspaper, or newsletter? It's fundamentally the same thing, even though Facebook statuses and tweets are free and aren't vetted by professionals. Do such things act the same as shouting "fire!" in a theater? Our gut reaction is to say no, since there is no immediate compelling sense of emergency when such is uttered, and yet the attacks in Philadelphia occurred so quickly and with such numbers as to send chills down through the police force ranks. Better luck may be made with the "fighting words" constitutional concept, but that leads to its own loopholes and problems. We also open up the arguments about profiling and civil rights.

So far, no one has given any credence to actually regulating social media. It is one of the few, pure forms of free expression that is accessible to the masses, which leads to its great success and why social media is an integral part of modern society after only a few short years. The way we communicate, express ourselves, and form legitimate bonds with friends, clients, and organizations has forever changed. And, just like any other such major overhaul in society, such as the telephone, the internet, and mass media, some people will use it for horrible purposes instead of its intended use. Curbing such excesses has always been the unenviable obligation of society, which often farms it out to the government. And as we have seen in the past, abdicating such responsibilities to someone that has the force of law on their hands can lead to some quite unfortunate outcomes.

While I'm more or less a standard libertarian free-speech zealot, I think the word "censorship" is thrown around too much--mostly, it's used by people who want a private corporation to do what they want. Only the government can censor anyone. In this case, of course, that is precisely the road we are headed down. I don't have any solutions, nor do I envy those that have to cook them up. Hopefully, we will all proceed with caution and prudence; two qualities, sad to say, not often found in the halls of our government.

*I'm aware free speech law is handled differently in the UK versus here (and, of course, to all other nations as well). It's the principle of the thing I'm discussing here.

No comments:

Post a Comment