It’s no exaggeration to say that the social media revolution has impacted millions of people all over the world, changing lives and even altering the course of history. Social media have changed the way individuals, organizations, and governments interact. They have fostered a new openness and transparency, and have made it easier for advocacy and activist groups to organize for change. Just in the past few years, social media have been credited with…
• overthrowing totalitarian regimes during the Arab Spring
• spotlighting social and economic injustice via the Occupy movements (which began on Wall Street and spread all over the world)
• exposing one of the worst dictators in modern history, the African cult/militia leader and indicted war criminal Joseph Kony, through KONY2012
Social media have also been used to rapidly spread news and updates during natural disasters, such as earthquakes and catastrophic storms, as well as to organize disaster relief.
A global survey taken last year by the think tank Havas Worldwide found that 70% of young people believe that social media is a strong force for change. (https://blogs.worldbank.org/youthink/social-media-and-social-change-how-young-people-are-tapping-technology) And millennials aren’t the only ones who have embraced social media; Gen-X’ers, baby boomers and their elders have also taken to Facebook, Twitter and other social media in a big way – not just for socializing, but also for political participation and working to create social change.
There’s no denying that social media have been a disruptive force and an instrument for civil agitation. They have turned our lives upside down and inside out, reshaping the way we think about the world and about ourselves. That’s very often a good thing, but sometimes it isn’t so good.
The dark side
Social media’s popularity is a two-edged sword, and social media have been abused in ways that painfully remind us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite this wonderful new tool we have at our disposal, humans are still… well, human, and there is a dark side to human nature, which social media sometimes bring out in disturbing ways. Social media have been used not only as tools to build community, but also as weapons to tear down: to stalk, harass, threaten and bully.
The Internet itself has been blamed for the decline in civility over the past couple of decades, as it has provided a means of anonymous bullying and threatening behavior. However, in recent years social media have provided even more efficient methods for cyberstalking, cyberthreatening, and cyberbullying.
Sometimes there’s a fine line between agitating and antagonizing. We all know people who like to stir the pot just for the fun of it, intending no harm. But we also know those who habitually carry it too far, becoming antagonists rather than mere agitators.
Sometimes people simply get caught up in passionate disagreements that escalate into fights. In many of those cases, the worst that happens is that one or both parties to the disagreement get banned from the forum in question, again, with no real harm done.
But sometimes antagonizing takes a dark turn, and social media sites in particular are uniquely structured to make it easy for ill-willed individuals to target others. We’ve all seen the tragic stories of young people who were bullied, harassed, and humiliated online, to the point that they took their own lives. Countless others have sustained deep emotional wounds that take years to heal. This isn’t mere “agitation,” and it is anything but civil.
A force for good
The good news is that social media can also be used to reverse the damage done by abusers. Social media sites, online communities, and blogs can be wonderful resources to help the wounded find their way to healing.
In spite of the down sides, social media remain, as social media and brand strategist Kim Garst wrote in a May 2013 HuffPost piece, “the greatest tool ever invented to mobilize resources in times of need and…a catalyst to galvanize seemingly unrelated people behind a common cause or issue.” What we can do – as individuals and as members of groups trying to create change – is make a pledge to always use social media as a force for good, to help build each other up rather than tear each other down. We can disrupt without destroying; we can agitate without antagonizing.
After all, we’re all in this together.