Acknowledging the good, the bad and out right ugly of social media


Soon Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will address leaders of the political word and the technological world in Paris. She will be talking about the need to address hate speech on social media and how to stop the spread of videos recorded by attackers in the course of their acts of violence. As we wait for that address it is important to acknowledge the role of social media in our lives – good and bad.

Social media plays a critical role in New Zealand in dispensing information from the authorities. It came into its own during the earthquake emergencies of 2010 and 2011 where for example it was the media platform on which the Student Volunteer Army was launched. In the years since it has been used to update the public during the recent Christchurch terrorist attacks, numerous overseas emergencies such as tsunami events. The same authorities have realized that whilst establishing a channel for criticism of all sorts, and sometimes quite nasty stuff at that, it provides the public with a non urgent means of passing on information, making queries and helping with tasks such as solving crimes.It also helps to build a rapport with various agencies – notably New Zealand Police, New Zealand Defence Force – posting more light hearted content such as the “Pawlice – Doggo’s with Jobbo’s” series of posts of Police dogs and their handlers having fun.

The same social media has by orders of magnitude improved politicians ability to interact with their constituents, campaign during election periods and pass on information. All of the parties in Parliament have Facebook and Twitter accounts, which can be lightning rods of support for media savvy politicians.  as evidenced in the United States by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s ability to turn attacks on her back on the attacker (Fox News, Breitbart, et al). In equal measure when a politician does something particularly nasty such as attack a religious minority (Australian Senator Fraser Anning attacked the Muslim community on his Twitter account, which then got suspended), social media accounts become lightning rods of criticism. Given the ability that social media has provided politicians to do much of their constituency work, I cannot imagine any politician who tries to limit social media because of certain networks failure to shut down harmful content following the Christchurch terrorist attack.

Tragically social media when abused can be the focal point of dreadful consequences for some. Examples in point have been numerous and I have often found myself having to call out racism or other bigotted behaviour – comments about people of African descent being monkeys/chimpanzees; Muslims being goat humpers, kiddy fiddlers and such; Maori being barbaric savages, and so it goes on. Sometimes Facebook has done the right thing and blocked the person or taken down the offending content, but just as often it has left highly inflammatory stuff up. I have also found that – although they seem to have had second thoughts about this since – in its early days streaming live coverage of police trying to talk someone out of jumping off a building was apparently a thing and it would attack absolutely horrible commentary.

I have a Facebook account and a Twitter account as well as this blog. I operate three pages on Facebook – one for my Amnesty International group with input from Amnesty International New Zealand head office in Auckland, one calling for comprehensive reform of waste legislation and one for this blog. My Twitter account is so I can comment on tweets in a strictly personal capacity as myself. I owe the success of my blog, which on average at the moment gets about 200 visits a day and on occasion over 1,000 to extensive advertising I have done on Facebook.

The same Facebook, as I am sure is the case for millions around the world, has enabled me to make contact with people I have never met but am now good friends with. It has enabled me to maintain long distance friendships with people in Sweden, the United States and elsewhere. Obviously with family members living both here and abroad, making contact and showing them photos of things like birthdays, weddings, new borns and things the children have been doing, helps to close the distance in a metaphorical sense if not a literal one.

There is absolutely no doubt that we must improve our conduct on Facebook, Twitter and so forth. There is also no doubt that, despite their assertions to the contrary both and others like Instagram can do more. But this idea that all is hunky dory is complete and utter garbage. Don’t believe me? Former Facebook staff member and one of Mr Zuckerberg’s initial inner circle Roger McNamee wrote a book called “Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook catastrophe”. In Whitcoull’s now.

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