Social media: a weapon of mass destruction?

There are reams of blog posts and online articles out there addressing the issue of social media and the role it has to play in the PR world especially. However, it’s not often that you see these discussions framed in terms of ethics; which was exactly what made the latest ‘Discuss’ event, held at the Albert Square Chop House in Manchester last week, so interesting. The question on the table: ‘Is social media evil? Discuss.’

Ok, so 'evil' is a strong word, and there’s no doubt it was being used partly for effect. However, the evening did raise some important questions, with many of the attendees leaving less utterly convinced of social media’s golden status, than when they arrived.

First off, many of us may feel somewhat bemused at the idea of applying a moral judgement to an inanimate thing, such as a piece of web-based technology. Indeed, social media is simply a tool for mass communication, surely a good thing? But, as Amy Binns from the School of Journalism at University of Central Lancashire, pointed out, guns are also mere tools, yet placed in the hands of certain individuals; they can be used to commit the greatest of evils (hence the weapon analogy).

In the words of spider man, who borrowed them from Voltaire: With great power, comes great responsibility. You only have to think of the recent stories of abuse on websites such as Ask.fm reported in the news, to see the truth behind this argument. Social media can be a great source of empowerment, yet it is only as good as the people who use it. Worse, the Internet can provide a rather sinister sense of anonymity and cover; people often behave differently in the virtual world, to how they would in real life.

This aside, perhaps social media should also be held to account for a series of more minor destructive evils - a general ‘dumbing down’ of society? How much time do we spend (or waste) each day, trawling through Twitter feeds and refreshing our Facebook pages, for example? Do we even enjoy doing this, honestly, or are we simply slaves to dull addiction? Put another way: is social media making us all just that bit more boring, or even narrow minded? As Binns went on to remark, though the tool may help broaden the pool of people with whom we communicate, rarely does this pool ever diversify, leading often to an echo-chamber effect, with the same opinions bouncing back and forth, ultimately distorting our perception of their place in a wider context.

In terms of getting your message heard - say you’re lucky enough to be re-tweeted by someone like Stephen Fry, then great! But what are the actual chances that the tweet will be read by your target audience? Even if it has wide appeal, it can often be as little as seconds before it filters down to the bottom of the news feed. It can simply be a matter of luck as to whether your intended audience will see it. Counter this with a well-written and informative blog on your company website - it remains there for customers and prospective customers to see at a time of their choosing and it will often carry greater credibility, as it is given the space to put across a point-of-view in detail and you have the room to explain 'why', rather than just making a simple comment.

But back to where we started: is social media 'evil'? Well, the word ‘evil’ is, of course, a bit dramatic, but the debate did raise some interesting questions. In fact, by the end of the night many voters had been swayed by the arguments for the motion; changing their original vote from ‘No’ to ‘Yes’ – and, along with it, perhaps giving a strong hint that social media, like newspapers, TV, radio and advertising (and dare we include guns?) will, one day, need regulating.

Categories: Opinion