The Dark Side of Social Media

It is common knowledge that the world hails social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter as agents of good that facilitated the sweep of democracy across the Middle East last year that became known as the Arab Spring.  Users extol over their site’s triumphs against oppressive regimes, often praising Twitter and Facebook for granting their foreign users with a sounding board capable of projecting their voices globally. However, who considers the flipside of this? Does anyone remember the violent riots that ran over London last summer like a steamroller? Because it is my guess that social media had just as big a hand in organizing that movement as it did in Arab Spring, and, judging by this meeting the British Home Office agrees.

The British Home Office held a meeting in the month following last summer’s London riots that brought together officials from Facebook, Twitter, and Blackberry to discuss the implications that social media and services such as Blackberry Messenger (BBM) have on criminal behavior. It is the converse of the idea of social media as the lionized advocate for democracy and democratic principles worldwide. Rather, in the case of London in July, social media became the executor of violent crime as rioters created Facebook groups titled “Smash Down Northwich Town” and “Let’s Have a Riot in Latchford”. Both administrators received four years in prison for online incitement in the aftermath of the summer’s events.

It makes sense that such individuals would be punished, but what of the services themselves? Should social networks be held accountable for the actions of their users? After all, they do provide nearly uncensored service to all. There is Option 1, raised by Prime Minister Cameron in his address to Parliament, in which the government might consider disconnecting such services if similar circumstances were to arise in the future, later conceding, however, that the legality of such actions is highly questionable. However, what of Option 2, an internal monitoring by services. We’ve already seen the beginnings of this on Facebook, via the omnipresent “Report this” option next to posts or photos, and users must now certify that material they upload to the site is not pornographic before posting. But is this enough? It seems that Facebook has created itself a loophole out of accountability by mandating that users check such an agreement, yet, as we saw over the summer, inappropriate material falls through the cracks.

So the question arises of how to counter this, or if we should even try to counter it at all. Should there be more stringent implications on a site’s administrators if it is used to promote criminal behavior? And what of stopping it entirely via government intervention? Or is it that Twitter and Facebook have given us this online domain and now it is up to us to rule it as we see fit?

These questions have no easy answer, but as we saw this past summer, social media can be demonized by its users, perhaps necessitating a re-evaluation of such services.

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2 Responses to The Dark Side of Social Media

  1. Shunori says:

    Agreed – this brings up an important discussion about the responsibility of the social media platform. As you rightly pointed out, the larger argument isn’t about how these platforms are used, but what roles the platforms themselves play in monitoring their content. There are a couple of things to think of:
    a) How will monitoring change the way that users see these sites?
    b) What metrics will the follow for monitoring?
    c) What are the logistics of monitoring – will the invisible “they” be able to monitor every post?

  2. Anna says:

    Great post, Olivia. It’s interesting that you contrast the Arab Spring with inciting illegal activities in Britain. After all, the Arab Spring protests were illegal according to the laws of the countries in which the protests took place. It seems to me that social media companies need to find their own ethical guidelines by which to operate. Simply deferring to laws in even the most repressive regimes, as Twitter has recently agreed to do, is a cop-out that will undermine both protestors’ rights and social media companies’ credibility.
    Also, while I agree with the argument that social media platforms can be used for both good and bad purposes, I don’t necessarily agree with the Britain example. An analysis by the Guardian in the wake of the riots in Britain showed that Twitter was used mostly to organize clean-up and response rather than to incite violence.

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