Feb 18, 2021 Editorial
Kaieteur News – Social media is this double-edged sword, this multi-headed monster that can mean so much good, but can be misused to do so much harm. We saw it, read it, learned about it, relished it, and shunned away from it during Guyana’s elections traumas; and it came back into the sharpest spotlight recently with what happened in the United States Capitol, Washington, D.C. Though there is scant interest in revisiting again Guyana’s own stormy electoral passage, or that of the presidentially inspired American riot (some say insurrection, even attempted coup), it is timely, even necessary, that another look be taken at social media as a whole, and its power to devastate and cause incalculable destruction.
In its Special Features section, under the banner of Tech Tent, the question was asked: “Did social media inspire Congress riot?” (BBC, January 9). On the face of it, the immediate response has to be that it played a significant part in what unfolded. To be sure, the American leader in the White House bears the brunt of the blame for what took place, but this is not about him and his objectives, but about how social media contributed, through what it made possible, and what it could have done, but did not do. What it could have done early and what it could have done efficiently and authoritatively. When the powers that control giant social media platforms had to act, they hesitated and give up on their obligations to the larger public and wider society.
After almost a lifetime of inaction, when the decision makers in charge of Facebook decided to move and shutdown some people, it was too late, as a lot of damage was already done. In fact, the furious feeds had started months before the American elections, leading to much groundwork done and in place. The same infuriating and roiling messages were repeated, and with the inevitable results ballooning forth before a disbelieving world to see. It is regrettable that there are all these filters and protocols and checks and balances against certain kinds of incendiary speech, and yet it was allowed a free pass for the longest while, and to sprout wings. By the time action was taken on groups and content was curtailed from others, the wildcat was out of the bag and could not be controlled any longer.
The disinformation spread had taken a firm grip, and many of those who travelled to the U.S. Capitol truly believed that they had been victims of widespread elections rigging, and that which conflicted with American democratic standards. And for each one of those physically present in Washington, there were tens of thousands more who felt the same way. However looked at, there is likely to be close to 80 million American voters, who think that they have been cheated, which is what they made known on one social media platform after another, and in increasingly strident, take no prisoners manner. To quote from the BBC article, “A lot of people who attended Capitol Hill felt so passionate about this – and really genuinely believed these false claims spreading online about voter fraud.” Guyanese do not have to make too much of an effort to identify with that, since it was so much part and parcel of our own elections passions and misgivings.
As Dr. Alexei Drew of King’s College London said, “this is something that a lot of us have been saying (and) has been a real risk for quite some time.” More pointedly, Dr. Drew had this to say about social media groups and their leadership failures: “They’ve had the controls and the ability to stamp down on group recommendations and these closed groups – and the content in these groups – since they were created.” That is unsparing by itself, and to which she added, “They’ve just not done it until now.” We associate closely with what this social media watcher and expert had to say. It is that the social media giants had no excuse for not moving more rapidly against groups which are spreading dangerous lies.
It is postured that we are limited in Guyana by how much we can do and how effectively we can act to contain social media excesses. Still, we say that if we monitor enough and know what we look for, then the trends and people and groups become easily identifiable. The heart of the matter is to take what is known, draw some conclusions, and go from there. That is, close people down by acting early and firmly.
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