It is fair to say that social media has had a big impact on our society in the last decade but is it an impact with substance when it comes to social issues or could it be just a platform for insincere bonding?
There was a time, not so long ago, when if you were interested in social issues you had to go to the local newsagent and buy a newspaper or a magazine that specialised in commentary and analysis on the important issues of the day. Or you had to set aside a particular time slot to watch current affairs programs on TV. You had to make some effort to keep informed and you did not make that effort unless you were genuinely interested and concerned about the development of society and its values. Not everyone was that concerned or had the time to keep up to date. Most people had responsibilities with their families and work and at the end of the day had no energy to devote to the problems of the nation.
Dialogue on social issues implies an ability to express your opinions as well as listen to those of others but such opportunities were very limited. Only a few letters to the editor were printed each day in the newspaper and talk-back radio was limited to a few callers per hour. It was hard to get your views across to a significant number of people. This lottery of being heard made it even less appealing for those who were trying to understand issues and work them out by interacting with their fellow citizens.
Those who wanted to be informed and wanted to express an opinion obviously felt strongly about the issues of the day because they had to make a deliberate effort to be involved. Can we say the same about the current 'social media village'? It is not hard to get information about almost any topic these days and it is quite easy to express your opinion about thousands of issues but exactly how much integrity goes missing when it takes only the click of a mouse to have an impact?
How strongly do people really feel about the things they express opinions on? How easy is it to 'like' some view point or some course of action by governments or private enterprise? How convenient is it to click on a poll about the behaviour of some celebrity? Anyone can come up with a tweet about foreign policy? How much effort has gone into the formulation of these opinions? How much information has really been taken in and responsibly analysed before an opinion is expressed? What credibility can honestly be attached to those opinions? Where are a person's real values when their views on climate change and a brand of biscuits are expressed with the same passion?
What real action are people prepared to take to change society? Would they attend a rally which might take up a whole day of their weekend? Would they be prepared to sit down and compose a well thought out letter to their local politician? Would they take refugees into their own home? Would they give a part of their salary to foreign aid? People who do these things really care – you can see that they care - but how caring and sincere are those who do no more than click their mouse?
Perhaps social media is more about peer pressure than genuine critical thought. We see what our friends like and so we like what our friends like not because we have thought about it but because having friends is sometimes more important to us than having integrity. We make decisions based on our insecurities rather than reasoned analysis. Sometimes these 'likes' snowball into 'public opinion' and many governments and organisations are forced to change track because of the 'outrage' of the public.
Many people have opinions about too many subjects. It is impossible to be genuinely well-informed about the number of subjects that people express opinions about on social media but there seems a social expectation that you have an opinion about everything. You dare not say that you are too uninformed to comment. This just trivialises social discourse and shows contempt for logical analysis and reasoning which are the foundations of our ability to live in cohesion.
Too many social policies become determined by the need to belong to the group, to have lots of friends, to be seen to be sophisticated. Those who make decisions consider not the strength of an argument but the weight of numbers and those numbers are often not based on shared opinion but a shared need to belong.
Groups can develop out of this shared need and the fear of being unfriended and the peer pressure can actually galvanise people into action for all the wrong reasons. Such groups can congregate at certain points of the political spectrum and become a powerful influence on how political parties re-constitute themselves. This re-invention is not based on shared ideology or thought out policy but simply on an insecure need to belong.
Social media has brought people together in a way that we could never have imagined a few decades ago but they still remain people with all the same insecurities that they have always had. We cannot let these insecurities dominate our social and political landscape.
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