O’Loughlin: Is social media a friend or foe?



William O'Loughlin

Last week I attended John Whyte’s presentation on the Death of Democracy.  

It was a really interesting panel during First Amendment Days, but the most memorable part of the presentation was during the Q-and-A session that came after Doctor Whyte finished speaking. I raised my hand and was handed the microphone. I asked something that had been on my mind for a few weeks, specifically since the Cambridge Analytica scandal (where Facebook users in the millions had their information used against their knowledge for political purposes).

“Has the advent of social media aided or impeded the political process as a whole?” 

Whyte thought about it for a bit and responded, “Well, that depends what social media you’re talking about. If you’re talking about the social media of 2004, it was very exciting! We were all so connected, and there was so much potential. But now, a decade later, and I would say that it impedes the process very much.”

To some extent, I agree.

Yes, the government is much more transparent. It’s harder to control the story when there are so many stories out there to control.

But, alternatively, there is so much misinformation out there now, too. Anyone can write an opinion piece (I should know, I’m writing one right now). And then it takes less than a second to share that opinion piece. Before you know it, that piece has been shared to thousands if not millions of people.  

Whether or not that story is true was never necessary to the person sharing it. The story just felt right because it made them believe that their beliefs were right. And so, a big lie can be shared, and a soft whisper of the truth is buried. 

But does that mean I am completely against the idea of social media? 

Well, that’s where it gets a bit more complicated. True, I did deactivate my Facebook profile when the Cambridge Analytica story came to light. But, I still have an active Twitter and Instagram account. I still browse Reddit during my off hours. I am in no way saying that one shouldn’t use social networks. After all, social networks are very useful when it comes to sharing photos of our children with family members, organizing social events and, of course, expressing our opinions.  

But before you click “share” on something that boils your blood, check out this helpful guide on discerning what is and isn’t fake news.

The main problem with getting your information online, as I mentioned before, is how fast everything is.  

Back before Yahoo News and our love of online yellow journalism, the news cycle was very slow. It was slow because it was thorough, and because of how thorough it was, you could count on the facts that you read. Whenever a fact wasn’t quite right, you knew there’d be ramifications.

I pine for those days. There was a lot more trust back then, trust we no longer have.