Most of us baby-boomers will remember that in the 1960’s a Canadian academic, Marshall McLuhan, whom we’d never heard of, famously declared “The medium is the message!”
It was one of those iconic statements that few of us understood but seemed so right we could not help but applaud it.
What did it mean? Some commentators would now say that it meant that the form of the medium that conveys the message has the propensity to shape how the message might be interpreted.
However trite we thought that McLuhan’s statement was, it is hard to dispute his insight in a modern context.
Of course since McLuhan’s time the media for communication has considerably changed.
He would have largely been thinking of television, radio and the print media. He obviously had no idea that the digital revolution would develop what we have come to know as social media. And social media, it seems, has now taken over the world.
So, bearing in mind McLuhan’s apt aphorism, maybe we should be paying some attention to how social media is shaping the messages it is promulgating and indeed what is its broader effect on the world.
Its proponents will tell us that social media is very democratic insofar as anyone can access it and anyone can have a voice. As someone who has written many “letters to the editor” but only with a few accepted, this sounds an attractive proposition. I can put my ideas out there on Twitter and Facebook and be guaranteed of an audience.
But when I reflect on all of this a number of problems seem to emerge.
Firstly social media isn’t as democratic as we sometimes imagine. It is dependent on the ownership of a digital device with which to interact and the skills to negotiate the respective media. Whilst these limitations might seem trivial, our young, comparatively affluent users who dominate social media are in many ways advantaged in this respect. There are still a substantial number of people (the elderly and the poor in particular) who are unable to participate in such social discourse.
Then, because participants are able to post any material they desire onto these digital platforms, much of what is promulgated is trite, ill-informed, often offensive and plainly wrong!
The information and opinions expressed are often given far greater status than they deserve. I shudder at the thought that politicians, journalists and others are using feedback from social media to gain an insight into what the populace is thinking and believing.
The British science journalist, Matt Ridley, writing in The Times and lamenting the paucity of debate in modern society, castigates social media:
And there’s the cause of the problem: Twitter and Facebook. Social media is polarising discourse more painfully than before. It amplifies the personal and the extreme, heats up the echo chamber and gives wings to lies. Confirmation bias rules, preaching to the converted dominates, nuance vanishes and moderates stay silent.
My second son is autistic. When it is difficult to relate to other humans, information from digital sources assumes high validity.
He will say to me something like, “We are going to have a severe storm tomorrow.”
I respond, “Why do you think that? I’ve looked at the forecast from the Weather Bureau and they’re predicting it is going to be fine.”
“No, no,” he will say. “Somebody said on Facebook this morning that there’s going to be a storm tomorrow.” And there it is – because it is on Facebook it assumes an authority that he finds hard to challenge. I am sure there are many more out there with the same gullibility despite the fact that Facebook is littered with hearsay, speculation, slander and outrageous opinions that would never be allowed to see the light of day in “letters to the editor”.
Not to mention Twitter. A correspondent to The Australian newspaper recently wrote:
Considering Twitter is always in a state of rabid hysteria over poisonous identity politics, perhaps it is time for the mainstream media to ignore Twitter and stop reporting on it as though it reflected community opinion. Twitter consistently undermines rational debate on important public affairs by elevating and empowering frenzied reaction over calm reflection, and encourages poor policy and decision making in our political class. Time to toss Twitter in the bin where it belongs.
Unfortunately notwithstanding the unrepresentativeness of the social media platforms, more and more politicians and journalists are turning to them to gauge public opinion and to propagate their own messages.
Chris Mitchell recently wrote:
In a quest to seem modern and relevant such strategies are a risk. Academic research shows that in political terms social media skews left.
Twitter is the worst. I would call it little more than a left-wing echo chamber for various highly politicised activists, including many journalists. This is not surprising since it was actually invented as a way for pop stars to talk to their fans rather than discuss serious issues.
Mitchell’s comments are reinforced by a Pew Research Centre study in USA. It found that:
….polarised crowds on Twitter are not arguing. They are ignoring one another while pointing to different web resources and using different hashtags.
….selective exposure to content generates the formation of homogenous clusters, ie, “echo chambers”.
Again quoting Mitchell:
Twitter, a medium with a maximum of 140 characters, is not conducive to logical thought, deep research, reflection or independence of thought. It is really a place where activists cheer each other on, often in the foulest language or with the most naïve affirmations of clearly partisan positions.
Social media then, has severe limitations when it comes to considered debate. Yet many of the issues of the day are broached, albeit superficially, on social media. And unfortunately newspaper editors and politicians are often inveigled into believing the opinions expressed, however briefly and unsubstantiated, on Facebook and Twitter somehow reflect the thoughts of the masses. In this regard they are doubtlessly misled.
With the prolific use of social media our social mores are being impacted. Social commentator Hugh Mackay has suggested that the advent of a generation of young adults “with an enthusiasm bordering on dependence” for social media is resulting in:
- Declining levels of emotional connectedness;
- Declining levels of secure attachment in young adults; and
- Less civic orientation, including less engagement in politics and environmental issues.
He references US research in support of this thesis.
It was reported in the press recently that researcher Alberto Posso from RMIT’s School of Economics, Finance and Marketing had researched the impact on more than 12,000 Australian 15 year olds of computer games and social media. Interestingly, regular gaming appeared to help students, causing them to score higher in maths and science. On the other hand frequent usage of social media correlated with lower scores.
So, in the light of all this, what should we make of social media?
Here are a few concluding thoughts.
Social media dominates the interactions of the younger members of our society. It has served to replace personal contact and as a result has diminished our ability to relate emotionally with others. There is reason to believe that it is having an impact on the intellectual and emotional development of our young people.
Social media also has shortcomings with respect to debate about important current issues. There is little opportunity for in-depth discussion and posts are often emotional, ill-considered and largely aimed at reinforcing an existing body of opinion with little challenging or counter argument.
The participants in social media chatter are not representative of the broad population, but tend to be younger people attached to particular issues and are often biased towards the left of politics.
As a result there is inherent danger in politicians and journalists sourcing material (as they seem to increasingly do) from social media believing it is somehow representative of the thinking of the general populace.
Now, I will be the first to admit there are also benefits from social media. I still have a Facebook account, even though I very rarely post anything. Many of my younger family members, various relatives and friends post material which keeps me a little more in touch with them socially, and I both enjoy that and find it useful.
But let’s face up to the fact that social media is changing our society and often not for the better. Marshall McLuhan has been vindicated!