Sunday,21 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)
Sunday,21 October, 2018
Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Social media – blessing or curse?

Have the new social media improved or worsened the way we access news and information, asks Azza Radwan Sedky

Two decades ago, neither the World Wide Web nor the Internet was a household name, and we didn’t carry phones, smart or otherwise, either. 15 years back, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks were unknown entities, too.

The mass media remained the sole agent of news. Television channels and the print media acted as the prime sources of information.

Void of rules or guidelines and with never-ending implications, the new social media have now sprung on the world to reshape its access to news. Today, as news consumption via social media grows, the way the news is dispersed, the speed by which it is disseminated, and its sometimes opaque character can leave us agape.

In August 2017, the world’s social-media users reached three billion, equalling about 40 per cent of the global population, with Facebook being the most prominent network. In Egypt, too, Facebook takes the lion’s share of social-media followers, with 89 per cent using it.

The reality is that the social media are here to stay, if not to evolve further. But have they improved or worsened the way we access news and information? Are they a curse or a blessing?

It all depends on how they are used. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, blogging sites and many more are radical tools of communication that bring people together, add to their personal knowledge, and get them involved politically, socially, and culturally in their countries and the world. This is true for people of all ages and walks of life, for young people and even more so for the elderly and those confined to a sedentary life.

Today, social media act in lieu of the standard media in many respects. Presidents utilise it, for example. Former US president Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate in the US to boost his campaign via social media. US President Donald Trump rants and raves daily on Twitter, while avoiding the standard media and calling it “fake news.”

Activists capitalise on the social media. Some believe Egyptian activist Wael Ghoneim’s page may have jumpstarted the “Facebook Revolution,” as the 25 January Revolution in Egypt is often called. Even if this were untrue, social media were used during the revolution to schedule protests, coordinate events and report back to others.

Social media also provide immediate access to the news as it happens. The term “breaking” is a new one, for example, entailing a crisis that is happening this minute. As an earthquake hits an area or hurricane gains strength, footage circulates on social media.

Social media can act as a backdrop from which to transmit views in ways that were not possible before. Whether such views are fair and square or twisted and antagonistic is a different question. But the social media have given the ordinary person a voice that can reach others everywhere.

On the other hand, social media are often abused and overused, with Twitter and Facebook awash with gossip and rumours, inundating people with a plethora of dubious, unsubstantiated information.

Hate speech is also common across social media as integrity disappears. Cyber-bullying, bogus information, and high-handed manipulation exist freely too, and very little can be done about them.

Many schemers exploit social media for their own devious uses. The Islamic State (IS) group and other extremist groups use Twitter to promote atrocities and the killing of innocent people and to announce their responsibility after a terrorist attack.

The notion of privacy has gone out the window, too. Befriended strangers join a person’s private world as the fine line between private and public fades. Political developments are juxtaposed against weddings and grandchildren’s photographs.

The consequences of misinformation are compounded on social media. Standard media gurus verify the information they pass on, but social-media users simply pass it on with no thought given to possible repercussions.

In Egypt, many people use social media to shout into the void, even substituting it for real life. Almost addicted to social media and fascinated by the number of followers they gain, some people talk to their deceased kin, reminisce nostalgically, or pass on unverified but damaging accusations, all on the same Facebook page.

Two of the most contentious issues on social media are politics and religion. Egyptian people are often divided on such topics, and they take to social media to voice their views. It is very easy to get caught up in a feud where brawls can ensue. And despite the breadth of freedom that Egyptian tweeters have gained, they continue to demand more freedom of speech, while confusing it with slander or name-calling.

Armchair protesters, among them those who incite from the comfort of their homes abroad and who will never be affected by the challenges Egypt faces, are given a platform from which to speak.

So some words of caution are necessary. Profanity, slander, cursing or hearsay are as libellous on social media as they are in any newspaper. Tweeters can be held accountable for inciting others and tweeting unauthenticated information.

Social-media users must remain vigilant not only about their right to speak freely, but also about the rights of the public. They must ask themselves if their stories add up and can stand up in court. They could be sued for defamation of character.

They must also differentiate between fact and fiction, question information, and verify anything they post, for their own sanity as much as that of those who follow them.

The writer is a political analyst.

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