When I started life as an academic in the mid 1990s, journalists and broadcasters rarely asked me about how media affect the world. These days, I'm regularly solicited for my thoughts on this topic for some story or other. Most of the time, the change has been down to one thing: Social media.
One can scarcely read, watch or hear the news without encountering a story about what social media is doing to Australia and the world, good or bad. We can be cynical about Facebook and Twitter; indeed, according to recent research, this is exactly what's trending in Australian public opinion. But there can be little doubt that social media have irrevocably changed things for most of us.
The examples come thick and fast. When UK Prime Minister David Cameron toyed with legislation banning social media in times of civic unrest, after rioting tore across Britain in the Summer of 2011, he quickly abandoned the idea as unworkable. Not long afterwards, Forbes magazine ranked Cameron as being less influential than Mark Zuckerberg. Cameron only had himself to blame. In 2010, the BBC reported of a videoconference between the Prime Minister and the Facebook founder; apparently, Cameron wanted to involve 'the social network' in getting people onboard with his spending cuts.
The romantic fantasy of Facebook is melting. It's tempting to view Zuckerberg as a real life character from a 1980s John Hughes movie; the shy kid whose science project conquered the world. But that particular mask has been slipping in the wake of a disappointing stock market flotation. Just last week, The Conversation reported Facebook's increasingly aggressive methods for harvesting personal information from its users, all in the name of being able to levy greater advertising tariffs than its competitors, and reassure those investors.
Its public image was tarnished still further in Australia over the Jill Meagher case. With Zuckerberg being bigger than David Cameron, the Victoria Police Force were naturally no match. It was days before Facebook eventually suspended pages that jeopardised efforts to capture and prosecute the ABC employee's murderer. Initial requests for the company's cooperation were refused, even in the face of pleas from the grieving family.
Yet the Meagher case demonstrated an essential truth about social media; inherently, they are neither good nor bad. As the police remarked at the time, social media had helped their initial inquiries. Facebook had also been instrumental in organising a series of public demonstrations against violence in Melbourne; powerful statements that Melburnians will not tolerate abuse against women. Bringing communities together, or pulling them apart, Facebook was there in the background, doing its thing. What it does isn't down to the technology, or the philanthropic use espoused by its founder. It is down to the goals and motivations of the people who use it for particular reasons under particular circumstances.
Other truths follow. Australians well may be sick of Facebook. They may even be turning away from it. But there's no turning away from social media in general. Just before the London 2012 Olympics, Director of Communications for the AOC Mike Tancred philosophically predicted the dawning of the first 'Twitter Games'. When pressed on the issue of athletes and social media, Tancred stated the ubiquity of Twitter and the like made it impossible to imagine that some athlete would not find her or himself in the midst of a media storm sparked by a careless tweet or status update. And of course we know he was right. So, whether you're a Prime Minister trying to construct a radical new political agenda, a detective pursuing an incredibly upsetting crime, or a seasoned pr expert managing the greatest sporting show on Earth, you have to simply deal with the problems of a world where almost anyone can say anything anywhere to anyone who wants to listen. Indeed, one of the punishments meted out to young UK rioters in the wake of the 2011 disturbances was a social media ban; as if not being able to check in at the local KFC is tantamount to being banished on Devil's Island.
Social media have become so essential to everyday life that we think they pull society's strings, even when they don't. Three stories; police caution a young man for sending harassing tweets to UK Olympic Diver Tom Daley; Twitter suspend the account of a German neo-Nazi group for circulating fascist ideas and emblems; and on the same day, they do the same thing to British National Party leader Nick Griffin, after he used the platform to encourage his followers to picket the home of a gay couple who had successfully sued a Bed and Breakfast hotel for refusing them bed and breakfast. All three events remind us that social media are social spaces where the ordinary rules of everyday life still apply; it simply isn't legal to threaten people, to intimidate them in their home, or circulate pro-Nazi ideas and images in a country that prohibits such actions. What is clear, however, is that social media have become a fulcrum for conceiving our rights and responsibilities as citizens.
What is concerning is how closely these rights and responsibilities are becoming tied not to social media, but social media businesses. As the New York Times pointed out in its story on Twitter versus the neo-Nazis, the more telling tale about the platform this year was its decision to suspend the account of a journalist who had criticised a key sponsor. Twitter isn't about freedom of speech, it's about the freedoms afforded-or denied-by commercial speech.
The observation that the only 'free' speech we encounter is that which attracts-or at least doesn't offend-corporate sponsors is far from new. Surveying the 1960s, having completed his oeuvre on the birth of working class radicalism during the Industrial Revolution, the peerless social historian E.P. Thompson glumly noted that the prospects for democracy were bleak in societies where young people found it impossible to imagine a public culture that wasn't paid for by advertising. Hesitant as I am to second-guess the greatest historical mind of the 20th century, it's a fair bet that if Thompson was still around, he'd think his question remained valid; and he'd point it at social media. Only now, the concern is more urgent.
Consider America's Movement.org. Movement.org is, according to its website, "a non-profit organization dedicated to identifying, connecting, and supporting grassroots digital activists from around the world." Its founder, Jared Cohen, is a Google Director who previously worked in the US State Department under Condeleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. But, judging by co-founder Jason Liebman's biography, if movement.org's mission is directed at ordinary folks, its techniques were certainly honed with corporate and state clients in mind. According to the site itself, Liebman's "Howcast Media", which shows neophytes how to attract attention with social media:
"works directly with brands, agencies, and organizations such as GE, Proctor & Gamble, Kodak, 1-800-Flowers.com, Staples, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Defense, American Red Cross, and Ford Motor Company to create custom branded entertainment, innovative social media, and targeted rich-media campaigns." (http://www.movements.org/pages/team).