Social media doesn’t threaten people, people threaten people

It feels bizarre to me to use an argument popularised by pro-gun lobbyists to counter claims of the risks of social media, however there’s some very real parallels worth considering about when agencies and corporations debate the risks of social media.

Yesterday there was a story in the Brisbane Times about a man who was arrested for making death threats against the Queensland Premier and his family.

How did he make these threats? In person at an event or rally? Via a rock through his home’s window? Via postal mail to his electoral office? Via a mobile call to the Premier?

No, it was via social media, using a Facebook account.

On Twitter I’ve seen multiple claims that this demonstrates one of the risks of social media. Based on past form I expect the news media to pick up on this over the next few days and wail about how dangerous social media is as it enables disgruntled or mentally unstable citizens to make threats hiding behind a cloak of anonymity.

Well sorry, this actually isn’t a risk of ‘social media’. It’s a risk every public figure in history has faced.

People threaten people. People say nasty things, photoshop images, make ranty videos about all the people they hate. People sign epetitions, write pleas for mercy, fight about ‘left’ and ‘right’ and often ignore facts and evidence which contradicts their values and beliefs.

In a world without social media, which those of us old enough can recall, people did exactly the same things they do not with social media. They made death threats, they character assassinated their rivals, they spread rumours and they gawked at sideshows.

They did these things via older technologies, phone, mail, at public gatherings, on radio and TV – even in books.

In other words – social media doesn’t threaten, abuse, belittle, bully, lobby or otherwise behave in anti-social ways. People do.

This isn’t to say that social media hasn’t contributed to negative behaviours by humans. The internet and social media has given far more people a public platform and global distribution than has ever before been possible in human history.

Communications are far faster and harder to contain, resembling a pandemic for which humans have no immunity. A single comment can become a movement. A single photo can become a cyberwar, a single slap can lead to the overthrow of governments.

The internet has contributed to these issues and the concerns that many organisations have when engaging online, however the risk remains the same it has for all of human history – the risk of bad behaviour by individuals and groups.

So how should organisations manage the real risk – of ‘bad eggs’ ruining engagement for everyone, of activists and lobbyists hijacking a cause or of commercial interests using their dollars to inflate their influence?

By making the engagement guidelines clear and transparent, clarifying the scope of the engagement and actively managing the community the risk of disruptive or destructive people can be managed, whatever the medium of engagement being used.

So in conclusion, social media doesn’t threaten, bully, discredit or otherwise hurt people. People do.

Social media is an accelerant and amplifier, but humans load it with content and pull the trigger.

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