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Is social media antisocial?

December 1, 2017 #Insights
Is social media antisocial?
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On 30th November 2017, Tom was asked to take part in the Cambridge Union Presidential debate “This House Believes Social Media is Antisocial” in support of the motion. Here is the text his speech was based on.

Thank you for having me here this evening.

When Page got in touch – through social media no less – I was excited to come and take part. I’m here tonight with my partner Clara whom as you can see is heavily pregnant. Baby is theoretically due tomorrow… hopefully tonight won’t entice baby to come early.

The reason I was excited was because issues on social media have largely been a theoretical thing for me over the past few years. Whether it’s profiling social media networks based on their users, or looking at how memes affected the US presidential election.

But with the coming of baby, it became rather more real.

A few weeks ago, Clara and I started discussing whether we should put baby photos on Facebook. My view is that we don’t know how baby will feel about this. How will baby feel about having an online persona created and maintained for it before it’s even been able to formulate its own thoughts, before it’s uttered its first word.

That argument points at the root of our debate tonight. It points at the fact that social media is antisocial for the fact that it has made many of the social norms that we’ve developed over hundreds of years redundant. What are the social norms for 21st century parents on managing their child’s relationship with social media?

Using baby photos to demonstrate how social media is making social norms obsolete is one thing, looking at how it is negating expert opinion and destroying the media industry is another.

First, the rejection of expert opinion, which was perfectly illustrated by Michael Gove’s quote on the Brexit campaign trail: ‘everyone has had enough of experts’. I think he was right. We have. Modern society is built on knowledge and expertise and it’s a social norm that is currently being challenged.

My old employers Edelman, a large communications agency, had a model of influence called the ‘Pyramid of influence’. At the top of the pyramid you have your traditional influencers, people like CEOs, politicians, journalists and academics. At the bottom you have the consumers you’re trying to target.

The logic goes that you get the people on top on board and this will filter down. It’s like trickle down economics but for communications.

Then social media came around and the pyramid of influence was inverted into a diamond of influence. You can still influence from the top down, but you can also influence from the bottom up to reach the consumers in the middle. The people at the bottom of the diamond who you use to effect that influence we called ‘activist consumers’.

The diamond of influence demonstrates how anyone with an opinion could become an influencer, irrelevant of whether their opinion was worth anything, whether they have any credibility, knowledge or expertise in what they are talking about. 

Now this has always been the case – we’ve been able to express our opinions freely for years – but social media provided a global platform on which to do this. It gave us scale. As long as you have 10,000 Twitter followers you’re an expert, irrelevant of whether you actually are.

Traditional experts often find it hard to communicate in this new world. It’s not their skill. We do a lot of work with foreign policy think tanks helping them around exactly this, helping them communicate complex policy ideas simply.

And at the moment they struggle. And the clutter and disinformation that exists on social media augments this. The result is that as a society we are rejecting expert opinions, rejecting those very opinions that we have respected, as a social norm, for centuries. That is a challenge to society as we understand it.

Second, the effect of social media on the media. It’s challenging a key pillar of our democracy, a fundamental tenet of our society.

Traditionally journalists and editors were gatekeepers, verifying and validating information before disseminating it to the masses.

Today this is changing. Facebook and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, are on the way to becoming those gatekeepers. Together they own five of the seven most used social media networks in the UK according to our research.

// See the research Tom is referring to here //

Why is this relevant? It’s relevant because as a community we are starting to rely on social media to access our news. Reuters Institute data shows that about half of online users get their news from Facebook and other social media platforms.

While at the moment they largely push us to the websites of the content publishers, whether it’s the BBC, CNN, Drudge or Fox, we are seeing huge investment into their own content. Facebook announced relationships this year with Vox and Buzzfeed to produce content that sits on FB and they’ve recently announced a $1bn investment into creating their own content.

Facebook is already a default platform for many of us – 78% of UK online adults have used it. We’re starting to see it become the default platform that we get our news from too. And soon it’s going to be Facebook that actually creates that content.

When Facebook becomes the default platform for content, serving content produced by its own content arm, the media becomes redundant. That breaks a fundamental norm in our society: that of having a pluralistic media.

Returning to the original question, is social media antisocial? Undoubtedly yes and in many ways. Whether we look at cyber bullying or revenge porn, rejection of expert opinion or the destruction of the pluralistic media.

It has the ability to get a lot worse, but it doesn’t have to. To avoid that we need to update our social norms and laws so that by the time baby reaches university we still have a pluralistic media, we still respect expert opinion, and we still have a shared understanding of what is acceptable behaviour, and what is not.

30th November 2017
Cambridge Union

  • Glenn Brown, Chief Digital Officer, Obama Foundation
  • Judith Donarth, fmr. director MIT Media Lab’s Sociable Media Group
  • Susie Hargreaves, CEO, Internet Watch Foundation
  • Tom Hashemi, Director, Cast From Clay
  • Page Nyame-Satterthwaite, outgoing Cambridge Union president
  • Ziad Ramley, fmr. Al Jazeera social media lead
  • Professor Ian Walden, Professor of Information and Communications Law, QMUL
Memes, memes everywhere
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{Tom Hashemi}
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{Katy Murray}
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{Cast from Clay}