Social media is finding its voice and redefining the pecking order in global power institutions.
Michael Comte, a columnist with TMT, recently made an interesting comparison between the abusive and falsely benign appearance of the Catholic Church in the middle ages, to what mainstream media has become today. He postulated that the church professed to represent and support the common person against the tyranny of state oppression. That the masses willingly succumbed to this Holy See-promulgated idea of the church being a moral guardian, acting on behalf of them and in their interests (Ayn Rand's theory of Objectivism touches upon the Church's hijacking of morality and makes interesting reading). This appears to be much akin to the image many media publications aspire to. Could this subjectively perspicacious comparison possibly be accurate?
The analogy between religion and the media is both controversial and intriguing and one which perhaps warrants closer inspection. One may argue that it is a facile debate and no sensible conclusion could be drawn from it. Yet, now that religion is losing its foothold in public life in many occidental countries, could it be that the media is perniciously edging in to grab a slice of that moral authority or, at least offer the deceptive pretense of morality, much the same way that the church is often accused of. After all, one of the church's biggest strengths is its ability to market itself favourably; what better industry to seize that mantle than one which already specialises in selling its version of the truth to the general populace? Major media outlets are well-positioned to carry aloft the flame of truth, so to speak.
Take the British tabloid News of the World's rightful indignation at the murder of Milly Dowler in March 2002. The duplicity of their reporting in light of the alleged hacking into the victim's mobile phone, is spine-tingling shocking. This infamous murder case was not the only target of suspected hacking of innocent victims, transgressed by News International's media outlet in the UK. People connected with the Soham murders and the 7/7 terrorist attacks were purportedly also targeted, amongst other potential cases that are currently being investigated by British police.
NotW divested the victims' families of one of the most basic of human rights to privacy, which is outlined in Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998, ironically the very act (albeit Article 10) which the same publisher uses to defend their right to publishing that information. Tangential comparisons could be drawn with the way the church lauded the abstinence of its priests, while simultaneously covering-up their horrendous paedophilic crimes. By this I mean that both the media and church are powerful institutions which people trust but, which can and have, dramatically failed to adhere to even the most basic code of ethical behaviour.
Interestingly, this hacking case looks like it has the potential to pit traditional media against the new kid on the block, social media. In the last few days, Twitter users have banded together and apparently organised an effective campaign to target NotW advertisers and ask them to stop advertising. Already Ford, Virgin, Lloyds and a few other major companies have pulled out of advertising with NotW. That is not to say that they did so out of a fear of the negative publicity propagated by social media but it does hint at an awareness of this potential.
An important observation, is even though it is becoming clear that traditional media is a bit of a beast, it is still a beast that is chained-up to a degree, i.e. there are laws which can curtail its activities and hold it accountable. However the new heavyweights, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, seem impervious to global legislative intervention, for the moment. Overnight they have applied serious pressure to some of the UK's biggest companies to stop advertising and they seem to be having an impact. Couple that with the use of Twitter in 2011 as an instrument in organising and disseminating information during the Arab Spring and one can start to see the power these social media sites now wield. A power which is largely unchecked and untested in law. A power which is organic and evolves without any one person, government or organisation to restrain and guide it. You could argue that these social media websites are owned by corporations and consequently answerable to the owning entity but, any attempt to censor this new medium may result in newer, freer platforms to replace the old ones. Social media may be the antidote to a corrupt media which has too much influence and power but at what cost? Have we created an organism which can sweep aside governments and lambast legislation, yet do so with an unaccountability which would befit a third world dictator?
I wonder if social media is going to be the new bully in public life, dictating political manouevering, sales and marketing strategies, influencing court cases (c.f. the UK "super injunction" and Twitter's contribution in bypassing it) and generally causing concern in established spheres of power. Not necessarily a bad thing but, certainly something which can grow out of control due to its global reach and the inability of state legislation to extend jurisdiction beyond its borders.
Social media may turn out to be the Internet's most influencial creation. If so, its success and power may be enough to spell its own downfall as more and more states and institutions come to view it as the threat it most surely is. With telecoms carriers' attacks on net neutrality looking increasingly strong (as an example of one such road to possible Internet censorship), governments may just see anything which hinders the growth of social media as something worth supporting, and that could mean the end of the 'anything goes' Internet as we know it.