A huge ruckus has been created about how social media played a damaging role in the US elections and adversely influenced public opinion in other countries. Silicon Valley-based social media and technology giants are now facing intense global scrutiny.
Given its unbridled power, social media has helped fuel the spread of unverified information and lies. It has become a weapon for the perpetrators. We seem to have grasped social media’s virality but we don’t entirely understand the mechanics and forces operating behind it.
The term ‘social media’ is a rather interestingly innocuous sounding word. It first created technology addiction among its users, dismantled the old media bastions and continued to undo institutions and social order, perhaps unwittingly. To make matters worse, people running them don’t seem to fully understand what they have designed.
Apart from technology addiction, there is also a growing concern that we are all turning into a generation suffering from relentless distractions, almost all the time. We are now living in the “attention economy” mediated by digital platforms. This economy breeds on impulse reactions, outrages, exploits, sensationalism to entertain and survive.
We are surrounded by gadgets and screens spewing information incessantly. If we leave this continuous treadmill of information ‘updates’ unchecked, we feel guilt-stricken. It forces us to constantly refresh and stay hooked to our devices.
Yet none of the information holds our attention for long. The compulsive mindless scrolling umpteen times keeps us busy. No wonder, our society today is afflicted by an epidemic of ‘continuous partial attention’.
New Business Model
Has social media outgrown its initial purpose? It started off as a harmless platform to create community and make friends. It was instantly popular among the youth owing to its universal appeal and brought in a new youth culture.
After amassing audience globally, the technologists behind the platforms went on to ‘innovate’ and add newer features to increase the ‘stickiness’ of the medium.
Features such as newsfeeds were added to create the mother of all platforms. There was no need for checking the veracity of the information. The message posts, forwards and likes are endorsements enough to believe and consume the information.
In the process, tech giants amassed both the audience and their rapturous attention globally and sold these as commodities to the advertisers. A new business model had emerged. The big digital gold rush had begun.
It also coincided with the decline of the ‘old media’ like newspapers and publications in the West. In the enthusiasm to dig gold on digital platforms, the print media was asphyxiated and investment moved to the alluring digital platforms. Democracy and serious journalism began to take a knock.
Digital Gold Rush
A viable business model around digital still eludes us. However, in the process the core product — print journalism nearly got killed and along with it went the gate-keeping mechanism, where information is put out for public consumption only after fact-checking. This tragic decline of old media helped the digital forces to overpower the old media’s established, painstaking, organised and orderly way of creating and disseminating news and information with checks and balances and accountability intact.
A parallel world came into existence. Technologists were busy playfully scripting the new world information order and rewiring our lives. They were redrawing the contours of our own perceptions and engagement with the outside world.
After all, the social media platforms primarily created to give that much-needed trivial touch to life had no space in their lexicon for high-minded words such as accountability, societal implications, regulations, check and balances, fact checking and verification. Anything goes!
Adapt to the New
Evidently, the world is increasingly becoming toxic, polarised, fragmented, divisive and unstable. These are problems that social media platforms and technology has unwittingly heaped on us. It is a scenario of deadly mix of poor civic knowledge and poor information literacy. Erosion of trusted sources and responsible journalism is turning out to be one the biggest challenges of this century.
Can we as media consumers sit by and merely watch this phenomenon? How do we negotiate with the digital technology fueled new world information ‘dis’order? If technology is eroding old structures – what is at stake? One must realise, technology can do good, but it can also do insurmountable harm.
There is no escape from adapting to the new technology and we must. However, like we are watchful about several things going on in our society such as crime, we also need to be vigilant and constantly adjust to this new reality of misinformation and disinformation that is being purveyed with impunity.
On the other hand, social media platforms will need to bring in more transparency and be open to scrutiny. As social media expands its role in providing news and information, we need better categorisation/classification of these platforms and demarcation of their roles in the overall information ecosystem. Like any other players, there is a need for governance structure and regulatory and policy framework under which they should operate and be held accountable.
Consumer and media literacy assumes even more importance in these times. To be an informed citizen and participant in civic life, we need a dependable, trustworthy source of news, views and information. Old media such as print publications have been furthering public discourse in a structured and responsible manner over the decades. We need to repose faith and trust in time-tested institutions and stem the unwarranted erosion of our own democratic values.
Like spam emails, the era of fake news may not entirely go away. We need to set our own cognitive filters and make wiser choices while choosing our information sources.
(The author is a communications and management professional)