Several things happened this week that have me thinking our perspective on the power of the media is skewed. It’s real, no doubt, but we’re missing something really basic.
That might sound strange coming from a member of the media. But I like to think of myself as a different kind of journalist in that, I don’t always put the story first. I put the people or the issue the story is about first.
I freely admit that I have that luxury because I’m a blogger, not a news reporter. But I made that choice deliberately. I knew the priorities going into my career, and deliberately chose the magazine track over news.
But back to my two head shakers. This week New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that she and French President Emmanuel Macron are planning a global effort to stop social media from promoting terrorism. Recent terror attacks in New Zealand and Sri Lanka were the impetus for the move, which will begin May 15th with a meeting of world leaders and tech executives in Paris.
Sri Lanka is already on that train. The government shut off Facebook and other social media platforms right after Easter Sunday terrorist attacks killed more than 350 people “to prevent false information from spreading online…authorities used the same tactic in 2018 to stop anti-Muslim rumors and doctored images, after the misinformation incited riots in the country.”
I’m not saying they’re wrong to do that. It makes perfect sense to pull the plug on a medium that perpetuates or in any way glorifies violence. But if we think about it a little bit deeper, it seems like putting the cart after the horse.
Yes, social media companies absolutely need to bear some responsibility for the content they allow users to publish on their platforms. Yes, governments and other authorities certainly need to do what they can to stem the tide of violence that’s trending right along side social media exposure. But is social media really the issue?
Social media isn’t picking up a gun. Without people posting and liking and sharing, social media is just another tech tool. Without our participation these platforms become digital ghost towns, the equivalent of the cassette tape, a once viable but no longer popular source for entertainment.
People need to change too, but that’s a much tougher problem to solve, right? It’s easier to just ban social media and hope that finger in the dam stems the deluge of rushing water before everyone drowns.
That brings me to head shaker number two. The British tabloids are seriously put out that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had the audacity to refuse to participate in the traditional photo shoot directly after the birth as previous royals have. According to CNN, “the country’s highest-circulation tabloid, The Sun, insisted that “the public has a right to know about the lives of those largely funded by their taxes.”’
I felt stupid just typing that, so I’m pretty sure it’s a flawed sentiment overall. It’s even more flawed because in theory, they’re right. The lives of public officials are open source to a certain degree because their salaries come from our tax dollars. But surely, in the name of individuality and human decency, we can draw a line between public officials’ behavior and a new mother’s right to privacy to give birth in peace? I mean, it’s not like we still live in the time when new husbands waved bloody sheets from the balcony to prove their wives were innocent on their wedding night. Or, do we?
Sometimes it seems like people think they have the right to know any and everything, to slice and dice our individual rights to privacy like so much fruit on a cutting board. Social media doesn’t help. It’s a fairly necessary business tool now, and more importantly, we’ve gotten used to publishing every little thing. The attention is like a drug, and the whole world seems to be addicted. We post and we like, and we post and we like, so we can get another hit. In that context, when someone dares to draw a seemingly arbitrary line, it naturally – or unnaturally – raises an eye brow. However, that doesn’t mean drawing that line is the wrong thing to do.
In Markle’s case, we can lay the fault at the general public’s feet for being unforgivably nosy – and shitting on a woman’s right to control all aspects of her body, and a father and husband’s right to support her – not necessarily on social media, or even traditional media. Sure, there’s some herd mentality at play, but people’s interests feed tabloid and social media content. If the Brits weren’t rabid for every little crumb of information about the Royal family, would the tabloids be trying to assert their right to immediate, intimate details about Markle’s upcoming birth?
Don’t get me wrong. Tech, and many non-tech focused, companies have done their part to contribute to the mayhem, taking our data and basically doing whatever the hell they want with it. Their consistently sneaky, sleazy, careless behavior has contributed to the idea that privacy is a just quaint notion that no longer has a place in modern day life. Unless of course you have a lot of money and can monetarily enforce your right to live off the grid.
You know what I mean. To name just one of many companies that have been caught data slipping recently, Facebook has set aside billions to pay for its sins in this regard, and the lumps keep coming, deservedly so.
But who’s behind the tech companies? People.
Machines aren’t running things – yet. There are flesh and blood, breathing, thinking – we hope, but we fear not – humans making the decision to trample on people’s right to privacy, and in the case of recent terror attacks, people’s right to public decency.
The Christchurch gunman who killed 50 people at two mosques in March had no right to live stream his disgusting spree on Facebook. But he’s a person. The fault is not solely with the tech; it’s with a global society that produces so many people like that gunman. People whose egos are so out of wack they think it’s okay to do and show that kind of filth.
Maybe I’m being naïve, showing my tie-dye leanings, but I just don’t think we can lay the full blame for the media – and data – messes we keep having to clean up solely at technology’s feet. There’s a human element that must be brought to a reckoning as well.