By James Boggs
Like all new technologies, social media has been a scapegoat for all kinds of problems.
As a relatively new technology, social media makes an easy and tempting target for all kinds of critics, pundits and fearmongers.
Although it is now a well established part of society, with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as household names, the sheer versatility and power of social media frightens many, making social media an easy villain for its critics.
Additionally, many of those in power, both politically and in the media, don’t fully understand social media.
This often leads to fearmongering based on misinformation or misconception.
However, despite their origins in ignorance, many of the issues brought up concerning social media are not entirely fallacious.
At its heart, social media is a powerful tool, and little more.
Like all tools, it has the ability to aid both good causes and bad, and acts as an amplifier for any action.
Just like the postal service and the printing press, social media allows a greater dissemination of knowledge, opinions and ideas.
Social media, of course, spreads information far more swiftly than anything in the past, making it a more effective, and potentially dangerous, tool.
Its power is evident. Only a few years ago the Arab Spring, in which the citizens of several Middle Eastern and North African nations rallied to overthrow dictatorial or oppressive governments, spread like a forest fire, engulfing several nations in the course of months.
The primary cause of this rapid spread and the general success of the movement, aside from the people’s discontent with their rulers, was social media.
Protestors and, later, rebels used Facebook and Twitter to organize thousands of people quickly.
Closer to home, social media played a significant role in the spread of outrage over the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings by police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.
On Twitter, hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, #HandsUpDontShoot and #ICantBreathe blew up as more and more Americans got riled up about police brutality.
On the other hand the Islamic State, the terrorist organization that has seized control of large swaths of Syria and Iraq, uses social media to rally radical Muslims to its cause.
Similarly, al-Qaeda uses Twitter as a tool for propaganda and recruitment, weaponizing it in an information war against the West.
In terms of more domestic abuse of the system, all kinds of social media pose privacy and security concerns for the average citizen.
Stalkers, sexual predators and other criminals can use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms to gather information about the victims.
Cyberbullies use the invisibility and potential anonymity of platforms like Facebook, which allows bullies to have direct, unmoderated contact with their victims; Twitter, which allows them to rapidly spread hurtful rumors; and Yik Yak, which allows them to remain anonymous while destroying others’ reputations.
The question is, as with all other tools, whether social media has more potential for helping society or for hurting it.
Social media, like many forms of information dissemination before it, passes this test with flying colors.
Although social media, like books, the newspaper or television, has the potential for destruction, it has far more uses as a method of creation.
Social media is one of the most powerful tools we have right now to keep people informed, to prevent the censorship of information by governments or corporations and to keep the world open and transparent.
Although the potential for abuse is there, social media, unlike many forms of information dissemination, has the ability to be built in such a way that abuse is significantly less easy than proper use.
Terms of service, user agreements and moderation allow social media platforms to promote the spread of useful, healthy information while screening out much of the abusive, harmful commentary.
Yet unlike other forms of moderated media like television or the newspaper, social media allows users to “watch the watchers,” so to speak.
This means that users can be secure in the knowledge that abusers will be handled, while knowing that useful information won’t be censored.