Friday, 25 July 2014

Lord Sacks may have a point.

During a debate on religious freedom in the House of Lords, the former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks suggested that social media may play a part in inflaming conflict. His comments were made against the background of rising anti-semitism in Europe and the escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza. A particular comment was highlighted in reporting by Christian Today:
"In all this we recognise the power of the internet and social media to turn any local conflict into a global one. We see how the wilful confusion of religion and politics allows soluble political problems to be turned into insoluble religious ones. We witness the ignorance that allows people to mistake one strand within a faith for the whole of that faith, and we pay a high price for our fascination with extremists. It is the worst, not the best, who know how to capture the attention of a troubled and confused world."
In response to Lord Sacks' comments Vicky Beeching, a proponent of social media, made the point that social media is a neutral tool:
"It's crucial we remember social media is a tool, and like any tool it can be used for good or for harm. The tool itself must not be blamed; that points the finger in the wrong direction. We must take responsibility for what we do with that tool."
On the surface this seems a legitimate point, however, I'm not so sure. The same 'it's only a tool' argument is used by the proponents of fire arms. 'Don't blame the gun, blame the people who misuse the gun'. There are of course legitimate uses for a gun, for example in the control of vermin. Yet, as a society we recognise that there is something inherently dangerous about a gun which leads us to impose tight restrictions on its use. We also recognise different types of gun carry different risks; the air rifle popping off manually loaded pellets is different from a rapid fire machine gun capable of delivering 60 rounds per minute and one causes much more damage than the other.

Is the same not true with the means of communication? There is a difference between a comment piece written after considered reflection and published several hours later after review by an editor and a comment fired off in instant response to a news story in 140 characters via Twitter. Consider the growing list of reporters who have discovered this to be true having published a gut reaction comment on social media which they have then had to retract almost as quickly as their bosses have transferred them to another story. I am not suggesting that comment pieces published in the more traditional media cannot be ill informed, inflammatory or even dangerous; the Daily Mail remains a constant testimony that they can. What I am suggesting is that certain forms of communication by their nature may lend themselves to this problem.

Bex Lewis in the same article recognises the distinction between different media while still defending social media when she observed:
"Social media can be considered like a brick – you can build houses with it, or you can throw it through people's windows. People are doing both with it, as people have always done with every communications medium. Yes, social media allows messages to move faster globally, and those who speak loudest will often be listened to. Social media, however, gives the opportunity to speak back, particularly if people gather together."
I am a supporter and user of social media. I blog, tweet and use Facebook and yet I have a slightly ambivalent attitude towards each of these forms because of the misuse I observe and some of the damage that can be done. The most recent case has been over the 'debates' about the situation in Gaza on social media. I have become increasingly uneasy about the way Twitter interaction seems to polarise opinions and suggest you must be either for or against a particular side in the conflict. My timeline has been full of 140 character or less statements, sometimes with links, about a situation which is far more complex than can be communicated in a sentence. The ability to nuance an opinion is lost and it has been easy to read some tweets as being anti-semitic or uncritically supporting of Israel. Isn't this part of what Lord Sacks was seeking to highlight?

Update: If you want an example of a more nuanced approach on social media then check out Sometimes it's hard to write anything funny.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

1 comment:

Simon Nicholls said...

Excellent piece, Phil, with which I heartily concur. I was uneasy with the tone of Vicky's comments, as reported, as they seemed to deny any validity to Lord Sacks' points. Technology in itself may be neither good not evil, but it is certainly not neutral as any tool including socmed has a propensity to facilitate certain kinds of behaviour and inhibit others - a point John Dyer makes well.

I suspect that Vicky might agree on reflection. After all, she abandoned her proposed blog series on LGBT theology and opted for old-fashioned print as her medium of choice instead. Personally, I think she made the right call there but also think it rather illustrates Lord Sacks' point and yours.