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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 25 April 2013

The Social Media Community: With Great Power...

There's a fascinating picture emerging about how social media is rejigging the rules of social engagement that hopefully everyone is paying attention to. 
There's no question that tools like Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr allow more information to be shared by more people to larger audiences almost instantaneously; this is both a good thing and a bad thing.  It's good in the level of coordination and social solidarity it provides - look at how platforms like Ushahidi make disaster relief coordination between individuals, organizations and nations around the world that much more seamless.  Smartphone Aps like Guardly add an extra level of security to women walking university campuses at night.  Rapid response just keeps getting faster. 
Look also at the amazing level of coordination and pro-social behaviour that happened in response to the Boston Marathon - citizens were tweeting their love and support, letting others know if blood donations were needed at hospitals and where worried friends and families could turn to learn if anyone they knew who was in the race was injured.  The bombing was horrifying and tragic, but the response was the exact opposite of what terrorism is supposed to produce - a sense of community and comfort instead of heightened feelings of fear and vulnerability.
I'd also argue that social media is leveling out the playing field between the haves and have nots in a manner similar to the influence of unions a century ago.  Connect the dots between various e-campaigns over the past decade or so; former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty backed down on increased restrictions for young drivers in response to a Facebook campaign.  Similarly, #TellVicEverything stopped The Canadian Harper Government's Internet restrictions Bill dead in its tracks.  A robocall push-poll by Porter Airlines rapidly led to a sharing of information between people called on Twitter; within a day, the who and what behind those calls had been exposed online.
Then there's Anonymous; where the existing political or justice systems fail to fill their public mandate, there is now a powerful entity watching the watchers.
This is where the power of social media starts to slide into darker territory, though, and where the need for responsibility comes in to play.  @Vikileaks was done anonymously (though it didn't stay that way) and was really a mini-terror campaign directed against Vic Toews.  Cyberbullying is a terribly invasive form of individually-targeted terrorism (which is essentially what bullying has always been).  Hacking and information bleeding happens all the time; though most of us are more familiar with the "OMG - you should see this pic of U going around" variety, these privacy breaches can be much more damaging - and also point out a major weakness in the institutions we are supposed to trust with our personal information.
Which is where the hacking of AP's Twitter account and the circulated story about White House bombings and a wounded President come in.  One single tweet, coming from a reputable handle in an age of rapid-response and information dissemination briefly threw the market - the engine of the economy - into a nosedive.  that was just one tweet; picture a more coordinated attack that hacks the social media accounts of multiple respected agencies (media, government, banks, whatever). 
Picture the Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast spooling out over social media, except with the story a nuclear explosion over a major city.  It would go viral in seconds; timed and coordinated properly, the average citizen would be left with conflicting information and no way of knowing what or whom to trust.  Call it Invasion of the Social Media Snatchers.
It's for good reason that governments and organizations are seeking ways to clamp down on Internet security; the potential risks posed by hacking are stupendous and horrifying.  What's more - as would-be terrorists realize they can do the terror-infliction thing without putting themselves in harm's way, the use of hacking, information theft and misinformation campaigns are only going to increase. 
How can we say this with certainty?  As I've written elsewhere - as Western governments increasingly use advanced military weapons like drones to do their dirty work while keeping their hands clean, those on the receiving end are going to look for any and every way to respond in kind.  It's a historical trend - when you can't fight a super power head-on, you employ creative, guerrilla tactics.  The guerrilla war is increasingly online.
You can try to clamp down on e-terrorism all you want; as history teaches us, building more complicated locks simply results in smarter criminals.  This is not a battle that will be won through escalation - the only way to end the conflict is to look at the root causes behind what informs and facilitates e-terrorism and information manipulation.

When you have governments that withhold the facts from their citizens and only spool out pieces of partisan rhetoric, the playing field is wide open for misinformation; people already don't believe government is being open and honest, so they are that much more likely to believe alternate sources.  The way to combat this risk is for government to be more proactive, transparent and frankly, honest about what they're doing, what problems are arising and to proactively engage with citizens for solutions.  That way, people feel they are part of the government process and are less likely to be swayed by alternate misinformation; they will also feel more comfortable turning to official sources for verification before jumping on whatever meme is circulating on a given day.
The second piece is just plain good PR - instead of picking fights with specific enemies to reinforce relationships with established partners, governments, Political Parties and all organizations need to build stronger relationships with a more diverse range of players.  Altruism, after all, is selfishness that plans ahead; you're less likely to face a sneak attack from someone who you have supported or collaborated with in the past.
Social media might not create information, but it does disseminate it rapidly between massive audiences.  Not only can average citizens from anywhere on the planet compete with talking heads for attention; Established Voices can be co-opted through hacking to devastating public effect.
That's power money can't buy.
With great power, however, comes great responsibility.  That responsibility lies on the shoulders of every person with access to a computer, but unless they have positive role models (like government) encouraging responsible use of the medium, we will simply be looking at an online tragedy of the commons.
If that's not a reason to rethink partisanship, negative attacks and reactive policy, I don't know what is.


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