Social Media and Decline of the Civil Society

Source: sxc.hu Photo: eliteds3
Source: sxc.hu Photo: eliteds3

Liliana Dumitru-Steffens at Pamil Visions in her piece on Social Media and Society Decline takes on the question of whether freedom of expression means anyone should be able to post content on the social media sites that can easily be termed as pornographic. “How much is too much?” She asks, and “Where do we draw the line and do we need to draw a line?”

This question has taken on a lot of relevance recently as the social media has become more mainstream. It is no longer just a few geeks and teenagers communicating over facebook and twitter. In this day and age, it would not be surprising to find families communicating with each other over these networks. In a sense, these tools are helping draw the society closer after decades of societies and cultures fracturing and losing their identities in pursuit of the individual’s quest for money and self-fulfilment. Businesses are finding these networks as a useful way of keeping close to their customers and develop new channels of marketing and sales. In short, social media is now mainstream, just as emails and chats became mainstream earlier.

With this as the backdrop, one wonders how much damage do the drunken facebook party pictures or similar content can cause to well functioning society. With such content online and freely accessible, does this indicate in any way that the civil society is on a decline? Do we need to regulate and censor content on these sites to maintain the integrity and civility in our societies, given that a larger and larger part of the societal interaction is now online and through social media sites? Let’s look at the three key questions we need to answer.

Does such content on social media sites reflect a decline in civil society?

From a purely logical point of view, I would have to say no. It is true that social media allows an easy outlet where content like this can be posted and shared with a large audience very quickly. However, it is a reflection of the society as it exists. If social media did not exist, such values and lack of values in the society would still exist and would find another way of expressing itself. Pornography existed before internet did.

Does such content on social media sites cause further decline in the civility in the society?

This is possibly true as it spreads the wrong kind of message very quickly across the world and exposes people to the content they should not be exposed to (for example, exposing pornography or violence to the kids). Almost all the countries in the world try to regulate the traditional media for content and access to the content to protect the cultural values of their societies and their most vulnerable citizens (children), and social media should be no different. But protecting the vulnerable is different from censorship.

Who decides what is morally okay and what is not?

Liliana considers the two sides of the freedom argument. Freedom of  expression guarantees an individual’s right to express and this extends to their right to post whatever content they choose to on the internet (as long as it is legal). If I look at a site and find content that I object to, does that violate my freedoms? I do not think so. I have a choice to look away. Ultimately internet content is part of a global marketplace and will follow the basic rules of supply and demand. If the society does not value a particular type of content, it will not make sense to post it. And if Facebook finds that such content hurts their business, they will find ways of regulating it.

Democracies are formed on the belief that individuals have the rights and the capacity to make choices that are right for them and these choices in the aggregate manifest in the societal values and culture. Governments have duty to protect the vulnerable but beyond that they should not be in the business to decide what ‘values’ should their citizens enjoy. How can they? They are merely elected to uphold the values and culture that the society cherishes.

I am a firm believer in society’s capacity to self-regulate. This happens all the time through various social institutions such as schools, places of worship, communities, parents, teachers, etc. If a change is needed, it can only come from the roots. Sometimes, these take a long time to work but it is the only way to make a lasting change. This is the only way culture survives and becomes stronger. Everything else is just a reflection of what society is going through.

This is but my point of view. I am sure there are many sides to the story and would be happy to hear them and get a constructive discussion going. I also call upon other bloggers and writers to add their voice to this debate.

7 Responses to Social Media and Decline of the Civil Society

  1. I see a similar question but from the other side… that is, when regular average stuff you might want to share about your personal life is then subject to the “in-house censorship” of HR and job recruiters. Now that we know more and more recruiters (as well as college admissions teams!) are scouring for your name to see if there’s anything they don’t like about you, the interconnectedness of social profiles presents other hazards. Is the circle around one’s personal life shrinking, or is the corporatization of one’s own “brand name” just going to become a more voluntary trend?

  2. Excellent points, Arohan. I do however have to make a short note: while you do have the liberty to look away when you find content you dislike, children (although they have the liberty) don’t know how to use it. Also, there are many people less skilled in this regard, people who find it hard to look away, people who never learned how. There are also people easily influenced by others, people who cannot choose from right or wrong, naive people, stupid people… and so on. So yes, I think we are really responsible for what we publish, for every single word, and for every single image.

  3. “If the society does not value a particular type of content, it will not make sense to post it.”

    Well crafted statement, and basically sums up the entire argument.

    Like any new technology, there are pros and cons to its existence. There will always be those who use social media for purposes other than it was originally created, but by in large, those individuals are usually weeded out and dealt with over time once society/governments/regulators catch up with the rapid advance of progress.

    Of course, problems arise when those who regulate or govern have a different agenda than their society (e.g. Iran).

  4. “while you do have the liberty to look away when you find content you dislike, children (although they have the liberty) don’t know how to use it. Also, there are many people less skilled in this regard, people who find it hard to look away, people who never learned how. There are also people easily influenced by others, people who cannot choose from right or wrong, naive people, stupid people… and so on. So yes, I think we are really responsible for what we publish, for every single word, and for every single image.”

    I haven’t thought about this, but you have a point. I totally agree.

  5. For some civil society associations, this implies a profound shift in organizational culture. But the price of such a shift is a small one to pay compared to the risks of failing to engage with social technology. Civil society associations, by using social tools, can extend the reach of their web presence and the strength of their network, and form direct relationships with the individuals in their constituency.

  6. In an anlaysis of the impact of visual media, who sees what is shown, is equally or more important than who shows and what is shown. Most Indians are uneducated and believe what they see.

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